Himalayan Journal vol.58
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

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



The first ascent of Yamandaka

BRACED PRECARIOUSLY AT THE EDGE of the waterfall, Mark Wilford hesitated for a terrifying moment to assess the situation. He fought to maintain his footing on the slick, algae coated rock, while glacial- fed ice water blasted over him, stretching his rappel line bowstring tight. His next actions would be critical. Fifty feet below in the canyon, the waterfall plunged into a deep ominous pool, how deep he didn't know. "I'm cutting my pack loose" he yelled up in a desperate voice. Fearing he might drown in the churning Maytag below, he wanted every opportunity of escape. Then he unlocked the screw on his rappel device and disappeared over the edge. A day before we had been the first to stand atop a magnificent mountain in the Indian Karakoram and now we were caught in a nightmarish descent of a water filled canyon. "How the hell have we ended up here," I thought. With more than 50 years combined experience in the mountains one would think we could have avoided such a predicament. One would think....

Our international expedition1 of eight had arrived in base camp some three weeks prior at the head of the Phunangma glacier, a remote and unexplored region of northern Ladakh in India. Our leaders were the legendary climber/explorer Sir Christian Bonington and his good friend and companion of several Himalayan adventures, Harish Kapadia of India. It was Harish's connections and intimate knowledge of the Indian Himalaya and Karakoram that opened the doors for our unique opportunity. Other than the highest peak in the valley, which we named Argan Kangri at 6789 meters, the plan was simply to climb whatever looked best. Without photographs of the region our expedition was truly exploratory which meant we could easily have found ourselves surrounded by unappealing mountains of crumbling rock or impossible icefalls. Fortunately that was not the case and we were delighted to find dramatic looking peaks with

1. See article 'In the Land of Argans', in this volume.

Cover Photo_________

Photos 31, 43 to 48

knife-edge ridgelines and steep granite walls. It was like being in the Alps for the first time, only all the routes were unclimbed and none of the mountains had names.

In addition our group included Jim Lowther, also from the UK, Divyesh Muni, Cyrus Shroff, Satyabrata Dam from India and my partner Mark Wilford and myself from the US. Captain Vrijendra Lingwal of the Ladakh Scouts would serve as expedition liaison officer. Two other friends of Harish's, Dr. Burjor Banaji and Suman Dubey would accompany us as far as base camp. The expedition was organised to allow maximum flexibility for various teams to explore and climb as much as possible. Wilford and I were immediately drawn to the north face of peak 6218m and its striking central pillar and we at once made it our primary objective. Although the weather was warm and stable when we arrived, it soon began to show signs of deterioration and colder temperature. A race was on between our time to acclimatise and the encroaching winter conditions.

On 8 September after a few days acclimatisation at 17,000 feet at our communal advanced base camp, Mark and I traversed to the base of Peak 6218 with heavy packs. We carried five days of food, fuel to melt water for seven, two ropes, and a light technical rack including ten pitons, three ice screws, some wired nuts and cams. We carried no etriers or hauling devices. We also took a tiny tent in hopes of finding ledges large enough to erect it. As we reached the base of the north face it began to snow so we made camp beneath a huge boulder.

The morning of the 9th dawned partially clear; yet despite a fresh plastering of snow, we started up the initial ice slopes leading to the prominent central rock buttress. After six long pitches of low angle ice with some easy rock, we reached a large notch in the ridge we called the first tower. Unable to find an adequate bivy we rappelled one rope length to a small rock ledge. Inside our tiny tent with the stove brewing we felt almost removed from the towering ridge above us. Fickle weather kept us in the tent till noon the next day but at the first signs of clearing we hurriedly packed our gear and started up. No sooner had I started the first pitch of rock than full blizzard conditions ensued. Moderate mixed climbing, interspersed with sections of scary, loose blocks, typified the initial terrain. We managed just three pitches in full winter conditions before an unlikely bivy spot atop a precarious ice mushroom appeared beneath an overhanging wall. We hacked and flattened the mushroom until large enough for our perch. With part of the tent hanging over the void it was not hard to imagine the horrifying scenario should the ice mushroom collapse during the night, sending us instantly to the end of our tethers, trapped in our sleeping bags in a tent filled with all manner of

paraphernalia. We tied our boots securely to the belay and fortunately the night passed uneventfully. We awoke early to cloudless blue skies and with great optimism I set off on the lead. Two technical rock pitches followed, involving tension traverses and a short section of aid. A third easy pitch led to the prominent snow ridge marking the top of the second tower and the beginning of the final pillar, the obvious crux of the climb. It was about 1 p.m. and the afternoon sun was just upon us. The pillar was compact granite without a clean crack system. I started up a thin seam that led up the left side of the pillar, first free climbing, then aiding, digging ice from cracks to find placements for knife blades and small wired nuts. Suddenly, a television sized block frozen in place, dislodged from hand pressure, sending Mark scurrying to the far side of the belay ledge as we both watched the spectacular missile explode 3000 feet down the north face. To my horror, the block had nearly severed the main climbing rope just ten feet from my end. After re-tying and chopping off the end of the rope I continued up the seam to where a shallow ramp broke right across a blank wall. A pendulum off a knife blade to a small stance, then a delicate traverse, with my crampons scraping on small edges led to a final overhang and hanging stance. I had one remaining karabiner! Mark lowered out the haul-sac with what little rope remained and then we watched as it swung into space, arcing across the smooth wall. Following the traversing pitch on jumars with a heavy sac was awkward, hard work and required leaving several of our precious pitons. Another pitch of similar climbing followed and it seemed to deliver us through the steepest part of the pillar. Mark took over the lead working his way up mixed ground to a steep slab and a bit more aid. As the sun dipped behind neighbouring peaks and the cold began to creep through my clothing, I prayed for a good bivy ledge. Arriving by headlamp I found Mark busily chopping away at a 50-degree ice slope. After two hours we produced a pair of narrow ledges, two feet wide that we could barely lie down on. Too tired to cook or eat, we melted a litre of water and settled into our sleeping bags on the tiny perch. During the night, wind-blown spindrift avalanches began to pour down the face with regularity, building up and forcing us off the slippery ledges. To make matters worse, I had begun to have severe coughing fits. I assured Mark it was not altitude related and just a cough aggravated by the dry, cold air and heavy breathing, but secretly, I did worry it might be the onset of pulmonary oedema.

We had both managed a bit of sleep when morning dawned grey with menacing black clouds on the horizon and a stiff cold wind out of the west. My coughing seemed to have subsided for the moment but I was tired from the hacking. We could retreat and it would likely take all day or we could go for the top. It appeared we might summit that day, hopefully before the storm hit. It seemed a pity to retreat, being so close, and with the season well advanced, we both knew we would not be back. The decision to continue seemed easy but it was imperative we make the summit that day as we couldn't bear the thought of another open bivouac. Wilford, in the lead now, started off on a scary, tenuous pitch, hooking axes on a film of ice and deftly mantling onto a snow-covered slab. Above a long series of snow- covered ramps moved left, to a steep corner and finally the summit ice fields. I jumared up to Mark as he announced excitedly that the summit was in sight and then he was off in full ice-climbing mode armed with two axes and three screws for a 200 foot pitch of bullet hard water ice. We had been certain in base camp that it would be neve or new snow! Mark climbed smoothly and at the top of the pitch he belayed at a small rock outcropping. On the next pitch he had to run out 200 feet of 60- degree ice placing just one screw, saving the other two for the belay. By now the cold, lack of rest and altitude were starting to take their toll as swirling clouds and blowing snow enveloped us. The storm had arrived.

As we sorted the mess of frozen ropes and gear at the belay we wondered if our companions far below could see us nearing the summit. A final hundred feet of ice led to the summit cornice where Mark traversed left and glimpsed our anticipated descent down the northeast face. He hollered down a frightening description of unstable cornices above death trap gullies. After traversing back right under the cornice to its narrowest point he managed to chop a body size notch, plant his axes in the soft snow and belly flop onto the summit snow slope, just 40 feet below the true summit. By the time I reached Mark the storm had achieved blizzard status and after scraping out a tent site we collapsed inside exhausted. It snowed all night and into the morning dumping over a foot of snow as my coughing fits intensified keeping Mark and me from any sleep. By noon the skies showed signs of clearing so rope-less, we climbed to the true summit, shook hands, snapped some pictures and marvelled at the awesome view; all around us, range upon range of unclimbed mountains, unexplored valleys and far below our companions; waiting, wondering what we were up to.

After lengthy discussions, we decided our original plan of descent down the NE ridge to the Phunangma glacier was too risky given the amount of fresh snow and avalanche danger. We opted instead to go down the gentler south face to a smooth, disarming glacier we could see below. We hoped that the glacier descended into a valley that eventually would lead us back

to Arganglas and our base camp. We lacked a map however, so in reality we could only guess how the glaciers and valleys connected.

Three rappels got us to easy down climbing and the long, south glacier. By mid-afternoon we reached the snout and our valley appeared to curve towards Arganglas just as we hoped. With a little luck we thought, a leisurely walk would see us back in base camp by the next afternoon in time for beer and celebrations.

We couldn't have been more wrong. Snow covered talus and towering boulder fields blocked our way and slowed progress to a crawl. By nightfall we found ourselves only a few miles below the glacier, exhausted but at least safely camped in a serene valley meadow. We ate our last bits of food and in the morning were awakened by a curious martin-like creature that seemed fascinated with his strange visitors. In the cool dawn, tired but happy and completely unaware of what lay in store for us, we headed down the picturesque valley. Although seemingly out of danger, we both suffered from that uneasy feeling one gets when you suspect something very wrong is in the making. We both questioned why such grassy alpine meadows were completely devoid of any signs of livestock or herders.

By mid-morning, we had our answer. Below a steep talus field, our gentle valley funnelled into a deep, narrow gorge, plunging down and out of sight. "We are f***** with capital "F",' my partner remarked. There was no way we were going back up and over and it was now day seven on five days of food, we had to commit to the canyon and hope it would lead us down.

At first the descent went well, as we hopped from one side of the glacial stream to the other and scrambled down short cliffs. It was really quite beautiful, the sheer, red coloured canyon walls above us, covered with magnificent rhododendrons and brightly coloured birds darting about.

But soon the canyon walls began to close in and the stream rushed stronger. "Ever done any canyoneering," I asked. "Not till now" as we rigged a rappel down the first of many waterfalls. The anchors were the tricky part as we had to search, sometimes in vain, for cracks in the compact, polished rock. Once, at the lip of a 70-foot fall we piled the largest boulders we could move, slinging the base of the stack and lowered over the edge. Then things got worse. The canyon became a water-filled channel with no place to stand. We were forced to our knees to prevent flipping over on the greasy surface, as we lowered down in the turbulent water, hoping we'd find a stance for the next rappel. It was like being flushed down a giant toilet! That's when we came to the waterfall with the deep pool.

It seemed an eternity as I waited for Mark to appear on the other side of the canyon and I recall thinking to myself, what if he doesn't make it, do I try the same thing? Then I saw Mark on the other side of the pool, giving me the big thumbs up and moments later I found myself in the cascade, repeating the same crazy antics. After joining Mark, we spread our gear out on the rocks to dry, rest and assess the damages. Mark's small camera was destroyed but fortunately all our film was dry.

We continued down, more rappels, more wading through deep pools and channels. We were exhausted and starting to fall ass over teakettle on the greasy rocks. About then we came to the end of the line. We stood together on a boulder at the lip of a huge waterfall as rising mist from the crashing water filled the air. Beyond, the sheer canyon walls twisted steeply down and out of site. We gauged the falls to be about 200 feet high, the length of our remaining rope. Peering over the edge Mark began slowly " we could be trapped down there, no one would ever find us, we'd just slowly starve to death if we couldn't get out". There was no way to break the overhanging waterfall into two rappels and coming back up the rope was out of the question should the canyon below prove impassable. It seemed we were trapped! It was now late in the day and getting cold and it looked as if it might rain.

Anxiously, we searched the canyon walls for a weakness. One side of the canyon overhung radically and was smooth with few cracks. On the opposite side a steep slab led up to a vertical wall where a series of giant blocks, precariously cemented in place with mud formed a slight weakness. We had five carabineers, half a dozen nuts and pitons and no slings. We stripped the leashes and straps from our crampons and ice axes to make crude runners, ditched unnecessary gear and prepared for the final roll of the dice. In mountain boots and soaking wet underwear, Wilford started up the first terrifying looking pitch. 100 feet up he squeezed into a chimney, placed some marginal gear, hung his pack and started up over the blocks. The first one was about the size of a grand piano and the only way up was right over it. I held my breath, it held. Next was a short roof followed by 15 feet of dead vertical climbing on loose, sandy flakes. After a brief pause the familiar "I'm going for it" floated down and I moved as far to the left as possible and braced myself. With a gun to the head, there are few climbers smoother than Wilford and he pulled through the steep wall flawlessly. Shortly, I joined him at the belay, amazingly all the blocks held in place. "That was the scariest pitch I've ever led," he said. This coming from a climber whose made a career of bold solos and first ascents. Two more steep pitches led to third class terrain just as it got dark. Following faint Ibex trails we skirted the shoulder of the canyon

rim until finally emerging on the mountain slope. Beneath us were many cliff bands and stacks of house-sized boulders.

We didn't dare risk negotiating the loose terrain at night and so we settled into another bivy on the hill with just a litter of water and no food. Our concern now turned to our comrades on the other side of the range. Surely they must be worried and we feared they would soon alert the military base to dispatch a helicopter search and that was the last thing we wanted. At least we knew that Chris was not one to panic having been in similar situations many times before.

At first light we descended the final slopes with care and at last arrived in the Nubra valley. Several times we heard the chop of helicopters and feared they were searching for us. From the valley floor we got a good look at our descent canyon; we had been within six hundred feet of easy ground but had made the right decision; the final section was a continuous waterfall.

A few hours walk saw us to the first bridge over the Nubra river where a military sentry was posted. We were met with warm smiles, congratulatory handshakes and a welcome platter of fried bread and hot tea. We inquired if anyone spoke English. "Yes, English Yes" responded the senior-looking soldier and we launched into our story in an effort to impress upon our host the importance of contacting the commanding officer at the army base nearby in Partapur. We had met with the friendly and accommodating Brigadier General Ashok Duggal at the beginning of the expedition, and were anxious not to inconvenience him or his men in any way. After about 5 minutes of one-way conversation it became apparent that our host didn't understand a word of what we were saying and so we gave up and enjoyed the bread and tea. About that time, a porter we recognised from base camp showed up at the sentry. He didn't speak English either but was obviously relieved and happy to see us. Finally, after flagging down a Jeep with an interpreter, we learned that Harish and Chris had sent him down from base camp to look for us and if there was no sign they were to launch a search on the next day! Relieved, we sent the porter back to base with a note that we were safe and would take a few days rest in the Yarab Tso Inn. Hitching a ride up the valley we were picked up by an American tourist en route to Srinagar. She was quite excited to hear of our adventure until all of a sudden her face dropped and she said, "you have no idea of what's happened, do you?" The date was 15 September, 2001. To our disbelief, she vaguely described the shocking terrorist attacks of 11 September. Without phone, TV, newspaper or local knowledge of any kind, it took several days, listening to crackly broadcasts of Voice of America before we could piece together the horrific details.

Back in base camp we found Chris, Jim and the rest of the team fighting deep snow and avalanche conditions on Argan Kangri. At last, altogether in base camp we enjoyed a hearty reunion. Mark and I were quite moved to learn that on the 7th day of our ordeal they had built a stone alter and prayed for our safety; I suspect those prayers helped see us through. Our Indian friends had made first ascents of two other lovely mountains, Abale Peak, 6360 m, and Amale Peak, 6312 m while Harish was busy exploring some high passes and valleys to the west. There were still plenty of interesting objectives but in light of the volatile international situation we decided to cut the expedition short. Besides, winter seemed to be coming early to the Karakoram and we'd had enough.

In keeping with local tradition and with Harish's help, we named the mountain Yamandaka after a fierce yet benevolent Buddhist deity. Our route we called Barbarossa after the book we'd been reading. Barbarossa was the German code name for the invasion of Russia during WWII, undoubtedly one of the most brutal campaigns in the history of warfare. The name somehow stuck.


First ascent of Yamandaka (6218 m) in Arganglas valley, north Ladakh, by Mark Richey and Mark Wilford as part of the International Expedition led by Sir Chris Bonnington and Harish Kapadia. This area was unexplored so the peak as well as the ridge (Barbarossa) has been so named by this team.