Himalayan Journal vol.58
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

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


Lt. Col. A. ABBEY

Exploration and Climbs in the Pangong Range

LADAKH IS A LAND LIKE NO OTHER. It is a name that evokes memories of fascinating, freezing and high barren landscapes, inhabited by joyous and hardy people. Bound by two of the worlds mightiest mountain ranges, the Great Himalayan and the majestic Karakorams, it is the head which crowns India. The world 'La' stands for pass and 'dakh' for many. Thus the title - 'the land of many passes'. Ladakh is also regarded as 'The little Tibet' and the 'Land of Lamas'. It is one of the many sanctuaries were Tibetan Buddhism is a living and thriving religion. Despite having made a number of climbing trips to this fascinating land, my love for this rugged and beautiful land of chortens has in no way diminished. On the contrary, I crave to be here again and yet again.

In June 2001, I was in Drass gearing up to take on the west ridge of Nun (7135 m), the highest peak of the Kashmir Himalaya. Although attempted and climbed often, the west ridge continues to be a fine line of ascent, on this majestic seven thousander. I had with me a young 'biggish' team of 22 soldiers from the crack 8 Mountain Division of the Indian army, most of whom were war veterans, but were climbing for the first time. However due to factors beyond contention, on 19 August we found our vehicles 'chugging up' the 5360 m Chang la on the Ladakh range, the gateway to northeastern Ladakh.

Our destination now was not Nun. It was not even the well-known Pangong Tso. It was the little known Pangong range. Within Ladakh, the Ladakh range forms the northern wall of the Indus valley, with the crest line varying at an average of between 5000 and 6200 m. To the north of this range lies, the beautiful, rugged and small, yet majestic, Pangong range.

The Pangong range is subsidiary of the Ladakh range and runs to the north of the true crest of the Ladakh range. The word Pangong literallymeans 'hollow', but these are not hollow mountains. The northern side of the Pangong range is bound by the famous Pangong Tso (lake) from which the range also takes its name. The range in effect is an offshoot of the Saser Mustagh, which merges into the gorge formed by the southernmost loop of the Shyok river. The Pangong range is thus in a way, an eastern extension of the Karakorams. This range along with the Aling Kangri range forms an almost unbroken chain of mountains in the trans- Himalaya. To the north of the Pangong Tso, lie the Changchenmo mountains, which is the northern continuation of the Karakoram at a relatively lower altitude. Together, with the Kailas range they form the region of the trans-Himalaya. The Pangong range is formed at the confluence of the Lazun Lungpa and the Shyok river, at Agham. Emanating from the bed of the Shyok river, the range rises steeply cutting across northeastern Ladakh, in a southeasterly direction. The Tantgse river cuts across the Pangong range at Tangtse and to the north and the northwest of Darbuk. The range reaches its zenith in the south, where the Chushul valley cuts across it to join the Pangong Tso. After Phurchuk la (4782 m), the range crosses into Tibet spanning the southern rim of the Pangong Tso, terminating at Rudok. The objectives of our expedition lay in its southern confines, to the northwest of Chushul.

Fold-out 3, Panoramas 1-2-3 Photos 28-29-30

The first expedition to set foot into the area was an Indo-Tibet Border Police expedition in 1973, which reportedly made an ascent of the 6461m Kakstet1. In 1983, a mixed expedition under the local Army formation, comprising men from the Dogra Regiment, Ladakh Scouts (from the Indian Army), the Indo-Tibet Border Police and the Special Frontier Force attempted and reportedly climbed Pt.6725 m., Kasket, 6461 m and Pt.6580 m. In 1987, an ITBP Expedition (Illam Singh)2 ventured and reportedly climbed Pt. 6725 m, the highest peak in the area. Although no documentary proof of this climb exists, 11 members reportedly reached the summit on 7-8 September. The ITBP pre-Everest expedition (Harbhajan Singh) was next to venture into this area in November 1995. 34 climbers reached the summit of Pt. 6725 m in three ropes, on three different days. The team also climbed the 6449 m high unnamed peak, in three groups on 08 and 09 November. In August-September 2001, after a gap of six years we were now the next in line, a young, very fit team, rearing to take on our objectives of climbing Pt. 6725 m, Pt. 6580 m, Kakstet 6461 m, Pt. 6134 m and attempt the first known traverse of the Pangong range.

From the Kajukongt la in the Chushul-Tangtse valley, I had my first close look of the mountains. The mountains of the Pangong range are sharp and shapely, unlike those of the Ladakh Range, which are far gentler.

With its shapely ridge lines, Pt. 6725 m stood out as a maiden, escorted by her smaller consorts. The mountain to say the least looked charmingly inviting and despite its earlier reported ascents, the southern face looked interesting.

The peaks around Pt. 6725 m form an impressive open arena of mountains. To the extreme west are the twin peaks of Pt. 6489 m and Pt. 6449 m. The broken ridgeline from the twin peaks moves further to the north and northeast. At the head of the valley, the ridge coming from the twin peaks takes a U turn and rises up to Pt. 6670 m, thus making a perfect a cwm. From Pt. 6670 m, the southeast ridge of the mountain drops steeply down to a col, before rising up to Pt. 6725 m. From 6725 m, a serrated corniced ridgeline moves south and east, before culminating at Pt. 6580 m. The ridge further continues unabated southeast to the 6461 m high Kakstet Kangri, with its east ridge finally moving in a south easterly manner, before merging into the broad shoulders of the 5630 m high Shimdi la. Our last objective of Pt. 6134 m, lay to the southwest of this pass.

On the Survey of India map, the southeast ridge from 6670 m, from the col rising to the 6725 m is known as Kangju Ri (the world 'Kangju' means a 'revered place', and Ri, 'mountain'). Thus we named 6725 m as Kangju Kangri4 and the shapely, serpentine, tri headed glacier below as the Kangju glacier. The villagers, who inhabit the southern shores of the lake, also refer to Pt. 6725 m as 'Thinguru'.

The move from Tangtse, between the Pangong and the Ladakh ranges on either side was a fascinating drive. Base camp was established on 23 August at 4900 m, overlooking the confluence of Keunglung and Tasta lungpa. Our date with these mountains had begun at last.

Camp 1 was established at 5560 m, next to a small glacial lake on 24 August. With Kangju Kangri towering above and with the milky white ice pinnacles of the icefall of the glacier virtually drowning into the lake, this vast amphitheatre seemed a stark, barren, desolate, heaven on earth.

On 25 Sept, I, along with five members, carried out a detailed recce of the Kangju glacier. We traversed the entire glacier, which is approximately 5 x 3 kms to its headwall and had a first look of the northwest ridge of Kangju Kangri. I studied the northwest ridge and the south face and finally decided on a direct line, up the south face of the mountain. Uncomfortably, the complete south face is dominated by a rather treacherous looking, uninviting, rocky boulder strewn ridgeline with traces of loose rock, which were in abundance at this time of the year. This seemed the best proposition up this beautiful face. Camp 2 was established and occupied on the eastern lateral moraine of the Kangju glacier, at 6020 m, on 27 August.

The ascent of Kangju Kangri (6725 m)

Kangju Kangri is the highest mountain of the Pangong and Ladakh range, with an interesting south face. The access to the face is up a steep gully, which itself is a mixture of complex rock and ice - 'a perfect funnel' for anything coming from top. On 28 August, the summit team comprising of seven members, and myself left Camp 2 at 0600 hours. Despite our best efforts the intense cold made it difficult to start earlier. It was a windy day, which made it worse. After crossing the Kangju glacier, we hit the gully. A huge yawning crevasse on the glacier, had to be negotiated, to get to the base of the gully from where the actual climb began. Seven rope lengths were fixed, with the route hugging the western side. There was constant fall of loose stones in the gully, which indeed was a perfect funnel. Our movement in the gully thus had to be quick and fast, which it was. The terrace was finally gained on top of the gully, from where we confronted the south face of the mountain. The face itself at this time of the year was marble hard white ice, with objective dangers of loose rock looming large from top. The slope to begin with was concave, which soon to my grave disliking gave way to a convex slope. Above this was knee to thigh deep soft snow, which made the going extremely laborious, time consuming and dangerous. The complete face itself was threatened by the ever lurking danger of big and loose rocks, which seemed to be menacingly eyeing our progress and every move. At 1600 hours, which was quite late in the day and when we were still 50m short of the summit, I called off the summit attempt. I took the decision primarily due to the fading light, increasing wind and unstable snow conditions. 21 rope lengths of varying dimension had been fixed and a tired team some what disheartened, descended to Camp 2, reaching the site at 1830 hours. We had been on our feet climbing for almost 121 hours and yet the summit had eluded us! It had been a classic case of being so close, yet so far.

After resting and regaining our strength on 29 August, we made the second summit bid on 30 August. I changed our alignment of the high point reached on 28 August and went in for an even a more direct line of ascent. We criss-crossed the old fixed ropes of the (perhaps) 1995 ITBP Pre-Everest expedition and finally at 1305 hours, the first member reached the summit.

The nearly 800 m summit ridge of Kangju Kangri, is dangerously corniced with the mountain plunging into an abyss on the north side. The summit itself was a conical, corniced high point, with the last visible rock some 10 m below. Carefully belaying each other we, trod on to the top. From the top, we had a fantastic all round view of the entire Pangong Tso, the Great Karakorams, Phobrang and the Changchenmo range. The Chushul

bowl and our objectives of Pt. 6580 m and Kakstet Kangri to the south and the high mountains of Rupshu lay to our south and west. I could also see the profile of the northwest ridge of Pt. 6725 m, which I had seen from the glacier below, as also the southeast ridge and the east face of Pt. 6670 m. After spending 30 minutes on the summit, we commenced our descent and staggered into the safe confines of Camp 2, reaching at 1930 hours. As part of our environment cleaning and commitment to the cause, on our way down we managed to open most of the fixed ropes. As the leader, I was elated and heaved a sigh of relief - for our young team, most of whom were climbing for the first time, it had been a great summit!

Ascent of Pt. 6580 m

Pt. 6580 m lies 3 km to the southeast of Kangju Kangri. On 01 Sept after attempting Pt. 6580 m, Camp 2 was shifted to the base of the unnamed glacier emanating from its southeast face, at 6010 m. It was established and occupied the same day. Upinder and myself after the climb of Kangju Kangri joined the second fresh team for the attempt on Pt. 6580 m. From Camp 2, the true summit of Pt 6580m was not visible.

On 02 Sept, eleven of us left Camp 2 at 0600 hours. It was a cold day with spindrift blowing and hitting us hard. We roped up and moved in two groups on the ice face, on the southeast ridge of the mountain. At 1000 hours, we reached the south summit from where a long corniced ridge had to be negotiated. The summit of Pt. 6580 m was further 900 m northeast, of the south summit. The fully corniced ridge was narrow at places, with the west face dropping almost vertically down to the glacier below. We were surprised to find crevasses on the summit ridge, which with the spindrift blowing hard into our faces, were time consuming to negotiate.

At 1130 hours, I stood on the summit of Pt. 6580 m followed by others. Unlike Kangju Kangri there was enough space for all of us to stand, yet we were all roped up, as we were treading again on a corniced summit. It was a grand view all around. From Pt. 6580 m, I could see the entire southern face of Kangju Kangri and in retrospect our line of ascent was indeed one of the most plausible routes on the mountain. The ascent of Pt. 6580 m was made from the southwest ridge. With the weather packing up and the afternoon clouds announcing their arrival, we quickly descended and were back at Camp 2, at 1400 hours.

Ascent of Kakstet Kangri, 6561 m

Kakstet Kangri is a shapely, attractive and a revered mountain, which can be seen from Kakstet village. It is located on the southern bank of Pangong Tso and is named after the village of Kakstet. The mountain lies 2 km further south west of Pt. 6580 m. After the ascent of Pt. 6580 m, we again shifted Camp 2 on 02 Sept. 2001 below the Shimdi la, which was established and occupied at 5400 m. Our camp, which was sited under the shadow of the gradual, but majestic Shimdi la was a big 'wind howler'.

On 03 Sep 2001, 11 young members under Capt Rajnish Bhandari and Subedar Ram Lal left the col camp at 0545 hours. They reached the tip of the receding glacier, which is on the southeastern face of the mountain at 0800 hours. Making excellent progress, they moved roped up with two ropes. Negotiating a steep hard ice slope, they reached the col from the southeast face at 0915 hours. Traversing from the col, the team moved up on hard ice initially and then in knee deep fresh snow, on the southeast ridge and reached the summit at 1040 hours. All members reached the summit and returned to the col camp by 1340 hours. Their quick ascent owing primarily to their physical fitness and good training was indeed quite remarkable.

Ascent of Pt. 6134 m

Pt. 6134 m lies 4 kms to the south of Kakstet Kangri, across the 6540 m high Shimdi la. On 03 Sept 2001, five of us left the col camp at 0700 hours. Moving up the northwest face of the mountain, we reached the summit at 1055 hours. No technical difficulty was encountered. En route panoramic views of Kakstet Kangri, Pangong Tso, Changchenmo range and Chushul valleys could be seen. We could also see across the valley, tiny dots (the other group climbing the southeast ridge of Kakstet Kangri), but soon they vanished out of sight, under the folds of the mountain.

Traversing the Pangong Range (Crossing of Shimdi la, 5630 m)

On 05 Sep 2001, our expedition team of eighteen members left col camp at 0900 hours. Our last objective was to traverse the Pangong range and finish at the banks of Pangong Tso. We reached the true crest of the pass at 1010 hours. From the pass, which is on the spine of the Pangong range, the team descended and entered the narrow Shikti (Shimdi) Lungpa gorge. Here even at midday, the streams were frozen. The stream was crossed 25 times and at 1510 hours, after an eventful descent of 51 hours, the team reached the confluence of the Shikti Lungpa with Chaga Topko (also known as Chushul river). The team finally descended to the lake camp on the banks of Pangong lake.

Winding up commenced on 04 Sept 2001. The expedition made a deliberate effort to clean the mountain. The team apart from bringing down its own litter (non bio-degradable) also cleaned the mountain of all such litter, left by previous visitors. This was carted down with the help

of porters and ponies to the base camp and subsequently brought to Leh. The team prior to departure from the area, paid homage to the valiant soldiers of the Indian army at the Rezangla and Chushul War Memorials who had fought most gallantly, while defending their motherland in these difficult heights in 1962.

The expedition during its stay was fortunate to sight some wild animals, such as the Himalayan Fox, Marmots and Wild Sheep, which were seen in plenty during the climb. Some ducks were also seen near the confluence of Chaga Tokpo and the Pangong Tso. A number of Kiangs were sighted around Chushul (old air field area) and along Chaga Topko. It was a very good change, to see more animals than humans - indeed one of the many treasures of Ladakh!

The Pangong range is one of the most fascinating ranges of Ladakh. These are no mean mountains, yet the idiom that small is beautiful would be apt here. Climbing as separate teams as part of the same expedition, the young team achieved all its objectives in excellent shape and form. Most importantly it kindled in the young soldiers an intense desire to get back and climb here again. Our date with these fascinating mountains was far from being over!

Finally with a heavy heart, time had come for us to say good-bye to these timeless, silent mountains of Ladakh, - which, hopefully, was only for now!


Dates and Routes climbed. Ascents made as under:-

(a) Kangju Kangri, 6725 m via the south face on 30 August 2001, at 1305hrs.

(b) Unnamed Peak, 6580 m via the south face, southwest ridge on 02 Sept 2001, at 1130 hrs.

(c) Kakstet Kangri, 6461 m via the southeast face, southwest ridge, on 03 Sept 2001, at 1040 hrs.

(d) Unnamed Peak 6134 m via the northwest face on 03 Sept 2001, at 1055 hrs.

Summitters (a) Kangju Kangri 6725 m : Lt. Col A Abbey, Sub Ram Lal, Hav Shurbir Singh, Nk Shashi Bhusan, L/Nk Manjeet Singh, L/Nk Anoop Singh and L/Nk Upinder Singh.

(b) Unnamed Peak 6580m: Lt Col A Abbey, Sub Prem Singh, Hav BaljinderSingh, Nk RK Manahas, L/Nk Bhagat Singh, Hav Gulbar Singh, L/Nk Sudhir Kumar, Nk Vijay Kumar L/Nk Upinder Singh and L/Nk Rakesh.

(c) Kakstet Kangri 646 m: Capt R Bhandari, Capt PS Cheema, Lt. S Charan, Sub Ram Lal, Nb Sub Gian Chand, L/Nk Manjeet Singh, L/ Nk Bhagat Singh, L/Nk Anoop Singh, L/Nk Jagdeep Singh, L/Nk Dhyan Singh and Rfn Satender Singh.

(d) Unnamed Peak 6134 m: Lt Col A Abbey, Hav Shurbir Singh, Nk Shashi Bhusan, L/Nk Rakesh and Sepoy P Vellu.

Passes: Shimdi la (Shikti la) 5630 m was crossed and the first

known traverse of the Pangong range under taken.

Period: 18 July - 06 August 2001.

Expedition: 8 Mountain Division (Indian Army)

Sponsored by: The Army Adventure Wing (Indian Army).

  1. Exploring the Hidden Himalaya, Soli S. Mehta and Harish Kapadia, Indus Publishing, New Delhi, page 146.
  2. Himalayan Journal, Volume 45 Pp.147-8.
  3. Himalayan Journal, Volume 52 Pp. 266-270.
  4. Names recommended to the army and the Survey of India.