Himalayan Journal vol.58
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

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



THE SINUOUS RIDGE OF 6309 metre Nanda Ghunti graces the skyline of the wedge of hill country between the lower Pindar and Alaknanda valleys, surpassed in scale and beauty only by the trident tops of neighbouring 7120 m Trisul. Viewed from the grazing buggyials at Bedni these two mountains rise in pristine splendour above the jumbled ridges of the foothills. Eric Shipton's party, who crossed the pass of the Ronti Saddle two kilometers to its east, first surveyed Nanda Ghunti in 1936. The peak stands well-detached from the outer rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and projects an obvious challenge to the spirited amateur who lacks time and inclination for a prolonged mountain siege.

Indeed, British parties utilising precious leave from military service made two attempts during the Second World War, but it was the Swiss team of Andre Roch and Rene Dittert who made the first ascent during their peak-bagging odyssey across the Garhwal in 1947. Accompanied by Sherpa Ang Tensing they climbed the east ridge above the Ronti Saddle passing the prominent forepeak via a delicate section of snow arete. In 1960 an Indian team approached from the Rishi ganga to the north and climbed the easier north ridge, and this approach was repeated in 1977 and 1980. In 1989 a British team repeated the east ridge, but since then there have been no reported ascents of the peak.

The mountain's south face is seamed by steep couloirs, which present the possibility of a direct ascent to the summit. By going early in the season these couloirs might be snow-filled and safe to climb by moonlight. With such a scheme in mind our team of seven British and three Indian members left the road-head of Ghat on 14th May 2001 to commence a four day trek up the Nandakini valley to base camp. However, we saw Nanda Ghunti's south face merely as a training trot for an attempt on Trisul's west face, for undoubtedly we all were lured by the egoistic appeal of a 7000 metre ascent within our four-week schedule. Perhaps it was well that goddess Nanda chose to mock our presumptuous ambitions, and left us content to admire and enjoy Nanda Ghunti alone.

Back Cover, Fold-out 1 Photos 7 to 10

The Dancing Nandakini

Having read Bill Aitken's description of the Nandakini - "one of the most lovely affluents of the Ganga seeming to laugh throughout her course and resembling a youthful goddess figure forever tumbling in innocent delight" - we expected much of the trek. The first day was a simple hike of 14 km along a jeep road to Sitel village, and our impressions were clouded by the sight of a massive logjam of newly-felled and sawn timber in the river. Whether this was legitimate harvesting within the limits of forest conservation or rapacious exploitation protected by bribe and corruption we could not tell, but at least we saw no evidence of clear felling higher in the valley.

New metal-girder bridges were in process of construction over side- streams as far as Sitel, pushing the motorised road further into the tranquil upper reaches. Phokariyal, our liaison officer, commented that these valley settlements were backward in their economic development compared to the norms of other hill areas. The road could bring growth and prosperity but only with considerable damage to local culture and environment.

The forest resthouse at Sitel deserves its plaudits, being beautifully sited in a gorge clothed in chir pine close beside the crystal waters of the Nandakini. The 12 km trek to Sutol (2192m) undulated high on the north side of the valley, offering extensive views of forested hills with the hint of spring snow on the higher reaches of the Rup ganga nala. Sutol has the most enviable sunny aspect and lies in the middle of the Kuari pass trekking route. One would expect several teashops and resthouses here; there was just one of each and neither appeared very keen to do business! We camped below the village at the confluence of the Nandakini and Rup ganga rivers, where two working water mills were grinding the local wheat.

Swapping mules for a team of 35 porters our caravan now climbed 400 m to the last village of Tatala and traversed into the Nandakini gorge. The track was well constructed and was reasonably clear of vegetation thanks to the passage of thousands of feet on the Raj Jat pilgrimage that had taken place the previous year. The porters had a prolonged stop for tea and chat at Tatala, so the British contingent forged ahead armed with a khukri to clear away any trailing bamboo. Uncertainty as to the distance to the next camping ground at Lata Kopri lent an air of tension to the trek, especially as storm clouds were building. The path dropped 150 m into a side valley where a recent landslide had created a blockage of tangled branches. Having hacked through this the path began a long zig-zagging climb through dense bamboo. Heavy rain had commenced and spirits were fast sinking when we emerged quite suddenly into a large clearing grazed by several hundred goats. The dense forest surround of mature oaks mixed with chestnuts in pale spring leaf resembled an arboretum. Our fortunes rapidly reversed. Dead bamboo was quickly kindled into a fire, the porters arrived within an hour and the rain cleared away to reveal the west wall of Trisul for the first time, a 10,000 foot frieze of rock buttresses and ice couloirs, which lay just 10 km away at the valley head. For the record Lata Kopri is 12 km walk from Sutol, and lies at 3050 m in altitude.

Dull drizzly weather made the continuing trek to Chandniya Ghat (3700 m) a somewhat dour affair. Emerging from the last birch woods after 7 km, the track crossed the Nandakini just below the snout of the Silasamudar glacier and climbed to the cramped camping ground, site where the Nandakini turns due north to make its final run up towards the Ronti Saddle. Another poor morning on the 18th hastened preparations for the final trek which follows the bed of the infant Nandakini for 6 km to where its splits into three feeder streams. We climbed 120 m up the central of these nalas to a broad alluvial valley floor at c. 4350 m where there were several spaces for tents. Despite a ground snow cover this was the best base campsite in the area. With the porters paid off the team settled to an afternoon of camp chores and toilet-digging, the weather remaining miserable with thick fog and persistent sleet.

Approach to the South Face

A silent blanket of new snow settled on camp overnight. At 6 a.m. the night fog cleared to reveal Nanda Ghunti in resplendent sunlight. The awesome west wall of Trisul rose in icy shade just a few hundred metres from our tents. We wandered about camp in happy bliss, our spirits mirroring the magical transformation in our world. Would that the revelation had been sustained, but by 11a.m. clouds had boiled up from the lower valleys to envelop us once more in mist and drizzle. Thus a frustrating climatic pattern was established that rarely allowed us more than three or four hours of clear conditions each day. Initial attempts to reconnoitre Nanda Ghunti's south face were not rewarded. Andy Nisbet, Mike Brennan, Glyn Rowlands, Tom Rankin, Ian Lee-Bapty and Heera Singh took light loads up to 5000 m on the left edge of a gentle glacier ramp that gave access to the south face. Des Winterbone, Phokariyal and I climbed slopes on the west side of the basin to 5000 m, but our hopes of gaining a clear view of the couloirs on the south face were thwarted by fog.

On the 21st eight of us established an overnight camp just above the previous day's gear dump. For once the clouds cleared in the evening and we savoured magnificent sundown views as strips of grey stratus clouds straggled across the walls of Trisul and impeccable sharp lighting struck the pyramidal tip of Tribhuj. On the following morning we moved loads 300 m higher to the top of the glacier ramp where we discovered an enviable campsite plumb below twin snow couloirs on the south face. Although steep the left hand gully was neither threatened by seracs nor complicated by rock bands and seemed to offer the most direct way to the upper slopes of Nanda Ghunti. A rapid return was made to base camp in time for lunch.

The Holy Lake of Hom Kund

During a rest day Des, Andy, Phokariyal and myself explored the valley towards the Ronti Saddle and found the fabled lake of Hom Kund. This shallow tarn of snowmelt is sited at the apex of two moraines which sweep down from Trisul and Nanda Ghunti. The altitude is at 4650 m. As the objective of the 12 yearly Raj Jat pilgrimage in honour of the goddess Nanda Hom Kund has acquired a spiritual significance out of all proportion to its scale. However, the simple and ephemeral beauty of the lake is undoubtedly precious, especially in such wild surrounds. I paid homage by taking a brief swim in the icy water. Two trekkers were seen going up to the lake that day - the only other persons seen during our 18 day sojourn at base camp. There was no litter nor even a clear access path and we failed to comprehend how some 10,000 pilgrims could have visited this place and made camp in the vicinity within the space of a few days during the Raj Jat the previous summer.

Lightning Strikes

With the weather stabilising by degrees we embarked on a serious attempt on Nanda Ghunti on the 24th, retracing our steps to Camp 1 with personal kit and extra supplies for a four-night stay. If we climbed the couloir by night we could make a summit camp at 5800 m and then go for the top on the following day. However, Andy noted that base camp air pressure had dropped 3mb the previous night, a worrying portent, and that afternoon a strong wind followed by a sharp thunderstorm hit our camp. Fine powder snow sifted through every gap in the flysheet. The storm was recharged just after nightfall and for the next two hours thunder followed lightning at intervals of between one and three seconds. The deafening reverberations indicated that the rock towers flanking the couloirs were being repeatedly struck. We decided it would be wise to stay in bed.

The morning dawned clear but strong NW winds were driving wisps of clouds across the summits. Making a reconnoitre of the first 100 m of the couloir we found snow conditions to be surprisingly firm and stable, despite yesterday's snowfall. On descending we saw a sizeable avalanche break off from the ice cliffs of Trisul and sweep the line of ascent up the Ronti glacier. No sooner had we concluded preparations for another attempt on the couloir a second ferocious storm blew in. Yesterday we had all scoffed at Des's fears of the lightning but we all swallowed our scorn when one strike lashed so close that we thought our tent anchors might be the conductors. All evening and night a strong wind blasted the camp, creating a fine-grained blizzard.

The decision was made to bail out of camp next morning. A record- breaking time of 45 minutes for the 1000 m descent from Camp 1 gave consolatory satisfaction. Base camp had suffered in the storms. The mess tent had lost a section of pole, one of our flysheets was ripped, and the local snow fox had taken advantage of the chaos to steal a goodly helping of muesli. Despite the reversal all members were keen to return to Nanda Ghunti after a day's rest, but we realised that our chances of getting to grips with Trisul were fast diminishing.

Third Time Unlucky

The weather on the 27th was generally settled, although there had been no significant rise in pressure since the storms. Radio news reports that dozens of people, including a 16-year-old youngster, had summitted on Everest in the previous days did little to alleviate our dwindling self- esteem. However, we also heard that a cyclone off the coast of Gujarat was giving severe weather over north-west India which on one hand explained the storms but equally cautioned against optimism for the coming days.

At 6.15 a.m. on the 28th we left base for the fourth trudge up to Camp 1, a sore trial in sticky morning heat. However, the afternoon passed without a storm and we prepared for a third time to tackle the couloir. When the clouds cleared at nightfall to reveal a sliver of new moon we began to feel we would get our chance. On this attempt we planned to travel light, climb the couloir in darkness, then continue direct to the summit in the morning. The faster we moved the less the chance of being caught in a storm. We carried bivouac bags, a stove and snow shovel in case we should be forced to stop a night.

Leaving at 10.40 p.m. we moved together in two roped teams. Andy and I swapped leads up the couloir. Snow conditions were good; a couple of kicks made a firm step and there was only one short section of icy terrain. The angle was sustained at 50 to 55 degrees in the upper half, which curved up leftwards behind a rock buttress. Shifting mist obscured visibility at times but aroused no serious concerns. We expected a fine dawn. At 2 a.m. Andy reached the snow crest behind a rock tower, which was surprisingly sharp, a deeper couloir dropping directly down the other side. Following this crest we gained another hundred metres before it merged into a level glacial shelf. At 3.15 a.m. we had stopped to put on extra clothing when thunder sounded from across the valley. Within the next ten minutes clouds rolled in, lightning flickered in close proximity and snowfall commenced. Leaving all metal gear cached we dug ledges and got into bivouac sacks to await the dawn.

Hopes that the storm would be short-lived were dashed. By 6.30 a.m. visibility was zero and a considerable volume of fresh snow was building up. Though some of us were keen to dig in and wait in hope of a clearance, the potential seriousness of our predicament became obvious when Andy went off alone to check our ascent tracks and failed to return. After 20 minutes and suspecting that he might have missed our ridge I went out myself but couldn't even find his tracks. Knowing that there were sizeable seracs on both sides I was seriously fearing that we had lost him, when he re-emerged with reports of accumulating windslabs. There were no lingering doubts. We had to get out while we had the chance.

A brief break in the fog showed that our high point was nearly level with the East summit at 5900 m but the sky was heavily pregnant with further snowfall. Having got down the snow crest we tied the two ropes together and descended the couloir in pitches of 100 metres. Sloughs of damp new snow swept the lower half of the couloir. Some of us untied and, being too tired to bother coiling, we allowed one of the ropes to slide down the gully. It disappeared into a deep talus of slush and was never seen again!

A thick soup of sun-warmed fog shrouded Camp 1. After the sleepless energetic night we lay in exhausted depression, and it took a great effort of will to gather our senses sufficiently to pack up and descend. Some of us removed all our personal kit as a definitive gesture - we'd had more than enough and wouldn't be coming back this way! And with this defeat our lingering hopes of attempting Trisul were finally extinguished.

Success at the Last Gasp

Only five days remained of our stay at base camp. For Glyn his chance of the summit was over. He had to return to the UK early and left us on the morning of the 31st, when, with ironic timing, the clouds completely cleared. The rest of us now split into two teams. Andy and Mike wanted to complete the new route on the south face and were prepared to trail up to Camp 1 for a fifth time. Having put out over a thousand new routes in Scotland, Andy's determination to complete the job should not be so surprising, but for the rest of us the prospect had as much appeal as spending three days in a Soviet labour camp. We were eager for variety, new scenes and an exploratory challenge, so decided to go over the Ronti Saddle and attempt Nanda Ghunti from the Ronti basin by the north ridge.

On 1st June Andy and Mike went back up to Camp 1 in the morning and sat out the day with Andy's hand-picked stock of Five Star bars and instant Readybrek. They planned an ultra-lightweight assault commencing at midnight. Mike visibly blanched when Andy produced a 15 metre length of 7 mm rope as their sole equipment for the attempt. Abseils were not anticipated!

Meanwhile Tom, Des, Ian and Heera and I had left base at 3.30 a.m. and cramponned up crisp frozen snow all the way to the Ronti Saddle at 5322 m which we reached at 7 a.m. Immediately the ice spire of Dunagiri broke into view just 20 km away across the Rishi valley. Below us the Ronti basin lay empty and magnificent in the still morning air. A continuous cornice on the north side necessitated a short abseil off a snow bollard. Easy slopes then dropped 120 metres to the glacier, and soon we were striding down the frozen ice. A glance up the first side-valley revealed the north face of Nanda Ghunti, but to gain the base of the north ridge we had to drop to 4900m and cut up the second branch glacier. Behind us, Trisul displayed her skirts of seracs while to our right Bethartoli Himal rose 5000 feet from glacier to summit in a continuous sweep of rock ribs and ice runnels reminiscent of the faces of the Bernese Oberland in the Alps. Camp was established at 1 p.m. at 5250 m on the lonely side glacier between Nanda Ghunti and 6063 m Ronti Peak. We'd had our finest day of the trip. If only the weather could hold for one more day we could yet make it.

We left in waning moonlight at 1.30 a.m. and after a 2 km plod to the head of the glacier reached the col at 5700 m below the north ridge at daybreak. Having enjoyed clear skies throughout the approach the view westward from the saddle over the dark trench of the Birehi gorge brought sudden and renewed alarm. Huge cumulo-nimbus clouds were massed some 20 or 30 kilometres away, flashing with a constant discharge of electricity. While the sun rose serenely in the east flushing Kamet and the Badrinath ranges in pink glow, our eyes were riveted on the slow drift of the storm towards us. High cloud spread across the peaks of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, leaving Changabang, Kalanka and Tirsuli in grim silhouette. Were we fated to fail on this mountain?

A steep exposed arete of 55 degrees commenced the summit climb, but thereafter the ridge broadened and became ill-defined. This would be no place to get caught in a white-out, but we were determined to continue until a storm was imminent. The cumulative fatigue of yesterday's exertions coupled with the long night approach quickly reduced our pace to a crawl. By infinitesimal degrees we gained and overtopped the height of 6063 m Ronti peak on the other side of the saddle. There were some 200 m to go when we saw a figure waving from the summit crest, unmistakably that

of Andy. He and Mike had climbed quickly despite some sections of ice in the couloir. From our previous high point they moved together up a blunt icy ridge to gain the final section of the east ridge and gained the summit at 7 a.m.

Andy looked so close I thought we might be up there before he departed but in fact the last climb took us fully two hours. To our relief the mushrooming clouds held their distance and we gained the summit at 9.40 a.m. Heera lit an incense stick in propitiation of the goddess who had finally deigned to let us tread her holy ground. With all surrounding mountains now besieged by rising cloud a swift descent was imperative and Ian led the rope confidently back down the ridge and into the sweltering heat and slush of the glacier basin. We staggered to our tents at 1.30 p.m. brewed a drink and then crashed into a stupor. The storms commenced at 5 p.m. We had only just been in time.

The weather was firmly back in its old ways when we set off early next morning to cross the Ronti Saddle and return to base. Swirling cloud and gentle snowfall were once more our companions and the snow was as lacking in substance as was our enthusiasm for the 400 metre re- ascent to the Saddle. On reaching the cornice I realized that it might have been a wise move to fix a rope length for our return, for now we were faced by five metres of overhanging slush. By desperate hauling on snow stakes and ice axes driven horizontally into the prevailing mush I eventually got over. We descended from the Saddle in thick fog and regained base camp at 11am. Andy and Mike had got down safely the previous night. Within half an hour we were revived by hot tea and fried chips courtesy of cook Naveen, and were happily exchanging our tales to the soothing background tones of Delhi FM radio.

By refusing to give in to the weather, we had finally contrived to make a happy success of what might have been a fruitless and miserable expedition. We had paid extra royalties to have Nanda Ghunti as a second peak but for once we could reflect that it had been worth every dollar. Our ignominious failure to set foot on Trisul was entirely forgotten. And I should add that this lovely Garhwal mountain, easily accessible yet sorely neglected like so many peaks in this part of India, offers a challenging southwest ridge and a west face as yet unseen for the pioneers of the future.


Ascents of Nanda Ghunti (6309 m) by a new route on the south face (Alpine grade AD+), and the north ridge (grade PD+) in the Garhwal Himalaya by an Indo-British party in May-June 2001.