Article 11 (Jim Lowther)
16. Suj Tilla as seen from the village of Ralam. Southwest face on right and northwest face on left.
Article 11 (Divyesh Muni)
17. Suj Tilla southwest face from Ralam We. Route of ascent marked.
Article 11 (Divyesh Muni)
18. View of Ralam dhura (pass) (colon right) from Ralam We. Suj Tilla peak is on left.
I hadn't seen Alka for nearly ten years, yet here we are driving through the Highlands of Scotland talking about Himalayan peaks. Yes, the Indian British Suitilla Expedition1 was born on the 13 September 2001, after a chance remark revealed our mutual desire to climb this fine peak in the Kumaun. However, it wasn't until 8 September 2002, in Delhi, that the four-person team met for the first time, the other two members of the expedition being Alka's husband Paramjeet Singh and my good friend Jim Lowther.
Up to this point all expedition planning and communication had been by e-mail! I was pleased and relieved to observe that the team gelled immediately.
Without delay, we complete IMF formalities and meet Yaduram Sharma ('just call me Sharma'), our liaison officer, who turns out to be a real asset to our expedition. We also meet the very dapper Lt. Cdr. Satyabrata Dam, leader of the Indian Navy Expedition, who also has his sights set on Suj Tilla.
For some obscure reason, Alka has hired a cook and assistant cook from Darjeeling. Our quest to rendezvous with them at Delhi central railway station is hampered by milling hoards and the somewhat unusual advice to 'look for two honest men, one of them tall' Miraculously we find them!
The climbing team, Sharma our LO, the culinary support team of Dawa Sherpa and Chumbi Sherpa and a mountain of gear are soon gathered together and ready to go. Everything is packed into a jeep and we head for the hills. Landslides, leaches and the monsoon downpour do little to dampen our enthusiasm en route to a cloud cloaked Munsiary. Unlike my last visit, in 1992, the stunning view over the Panch Chuli group is curtained in grey cloud.
Photo 16, 19 to 23
The arranging of porter hire, potentially a stressful business, is calmly settled by Paramjeet and a straggle of assorted Nepali and Kumauni porters eventually set off in the rain, up the narrow, gloomy Ralam gad. I quickly realise that one of the local porters was with me on the 1992 Panch Chuli expedition. He also recognises me and we share memories.
Five days later, after negotiating many sections where landslides have destroyed the path and having a very close encounter with a black bear, we pass through the final village of Ralam to meet the snow line low down on the Shunkalpa glacier. I press on, looking for an acceptable site for our BC, frustrated that we can't pitch it much higher up. The porters, however, have stopped and sit despondently on their loads refusing to continue in the deep snow.
The impasse is quickly overcome when Sharma points out that I have all the money. Clearly, if they want to receive their pay, joining me at the chosen site would be a wise move! We slot our tents in between snow covered moraine mounds, giving even this inhospitable place a feeling of security.
The following day we push on up round the bend onto the Yankchar glacier and see, for the first time, the full height of the 2000 m NW face of Suj Tilla, its rock and ice flanks soaring to a perfect apex. It is breathtaking!
Paramjeet has not been feeling well since leaving Delhi, having not really recovered from a severe viral infection. As we pitch ABC at 4350 m, he confirms his decision to head back to Delhi and Alka understandably wants to go with him. The four of us hug and exchange best wishes. As their tiny figures wave a last goodbye, before the turn of the glacier, I feel a profound sense of sadness yet know that it is the right decision.
Jim and I are left alone below the great face of the mountain.
Snow falls near constantly for two days. Fortunately we are well equipped with whisky, good coffee and a supply of paperbacks.
Now patience is a strong point with neither Jim nor me, and it is hard to supress the desire to dash up onto the face as soon as the weather improves. However, aware of the acute avalanche risk, we do some more reading and plan our tactics. Just how lightweight are we prepared to be? It is an interesting equation: the more you carry, the slower you climb, the more you need to carry! On Kullu Eiger in 1996 we'd dispensed with sleeping bags — a rather too radical approach to weight saving! How light could lightweight be this time?
We study the face through binoculars visualising a safe line up a huge open groove that avoids the fall line of a hanging serac wall. Minor avalanche slips are clearly evident from the upper face, encouraging the rather optimistic view that all the new snow has either slipped off or has consolidated.
On the 22 September our patience fails and by the light of the moon, we carry a tent and hardware up the foot of the technical climbing. We pitch our Gemini tent, dump the hardware and then return to ABC. On the evening of the 23 September we return to the dump, gear up and start to solo up the avalanche fan. We cross the bergshrund and continue to solo up the icefield, trailing our 60 m ropes. Lost in our own thoughts, we crampon up the face, linking together exposed runnels of ice where the fresh snow has slipped off the face. Time is suspended as we repeat the same basic move over and over again, trying not to dwell on our increasing commitment. I am privately worried that I am not really fit enough for such a big and demanding climb. As the surface deteriorates, we rope together without debate. A grey dawn arrives so gradually that we hardly notice it. Despite climbing steadily for many hours, we hardly seem to have made any impression on this huge face. We push on for a couple more pitches up appalling snow to just below the foot of the great groove. We are tired and thirsty and decide to stop for a brew at a small shattered outcrop of rock. Heavy cloud is building up around us blocking out the view of Suli Top and other surrounding peaks. As we dig a ledge, the idea of pitching the Gemini to catch a few hours of sleep and give the weather a chance to improve, becomes irresistible. I ease into my sleeping bag on the upward slope side of the tent, Jim perches on the less stable outer lip of the snow ledge. I drift asleep for a few hours then awake to hailstones battering on the taught gortex next to my face. I watch with fascination as, egg timer like, the hailstones fill up the space between the tent and the face. The speed of this phenomena is clearly a result of the funnelling effect of the big groove above us. I go into panic mode realising that our tent is in danger of being pushed off the face. I rouse Jim and crawl out and quickly dismantle the tent. A brief attempt to climb on confirms that the steep snow above us is very unstable which in combination with the threatening weather leaves only one course of action. The descent is a nightmare. We sink up to our thighs where the previously frozen crust of the lower slopes has softened. As we stagger into ABC, relieved to be off the mountain, I am already thinking about another attempt.
Jim and I refocus the expedition over a whisky — we will relocate our camp and go for the south face!
Sharma and Chumbi are now ensconced at ABC and Chumbi demonstrates his culinary expertise by heating some noodles.
Yet more snow has fallen overnight but to our relief the sky is a cloudless frosted blue. As the four of us trail-break up the Yankchar glacier, Sharma asked if he and Chumbi can join us for the south face climb. I'm taken aback and say I'll discuss it with Jim.
We place a temporary camp at the foot of the glacier and whilst Sharma and Chumbi return to BC to get more gear and explain our plans to Dawa, Jim and I do a load carry up the heavily crevassed glacier. On descent, we spot a line of tiny figures descending from the Yankchar Dhura (pass). The Indian Navy Expedition have obviously caught us up.
On the 26 September we establish Camp 2 at 5270 m in a snow basin below the foot of the south face. It is a stunning location with magnificent views out over Nada Devi and Nanda Kot.
Sharma and Chumbi join us at mid day, having walked up from BC, clearly demonstrating that they are both fit and competent mountaineers. However, I explain the lightweight tactics that Jim and I propose to employ on the south face and that we need them to remain at Camp 2 in support.
I usually find it difficult to sleep at altitude and this expedition is no different.
At midnight, I pop a sleeping tablet but it has no effect. Jim wakes at 0530, raring to break trail to the foot of the face before the sun gets up, I'm desperate to sleep. He gives up on me and enlisting the help of Chumbi, dashes across the snow basin and up the avalanche debris to make a cache of hardware in the bergshrund below the south face of our mountain. I crawl out of my sleeping bag as they return.
We laze the day away, eating and drinking. Jim reads the back of food packets as he's already devoured his paperbacks! I reflect that it was only four years ago that I swore that I'd never go on an expedition to a big snowy mountain again (after Sepu Kangri) — how easily our memories edit out the pain! At 2200 hours, after the last glow of a flaming sunset has quit the sky, we shoulder our super-light sacks and by the halo of head-torches, follow the morning step-trail to the bergshrund cache.
Both trailing a 60 m rope, we cross the bergshrund and solo up the lower slopes of the face on snow-ice with the odd island of squeaky snow. All existence is now caught in two small pools of light on a great plate of glistening ice. As the face becomes steeper and the surface less secure, we start pitching and belaying. Jim marvels at the moonlight glistening on the ice as I weave my way through the first rock barrier. We carry on in a waking dream, repeating the same move time and time again yet each time it is different.
In the darkness before dawn, Jim veers off line to rock islands on the right. I shout to attract his attention. He is silent for a while and then tells me that a third person on the rope — a woman — was giving him directions.
The ice is now completely covered in a thick crust of powdery snow that forces us to dig deep holes to place ice screw runners and belays.
The serac wall looms above us as dawn creeps across the glacier far below. I gaze south over shadowed walls and pinnacles to the high arrow-like form of Panch Chuli II (6904 m), white-light reflecting from its north-east face. Was it really ten years ago that Chris and I stood on the summit after two bivouacs on the west spur? A tight rope drags me back from my reverie and we push on up to the serac wall hoping to find a ledge where we can sit and brew. The cold is intense although there is little wind.
We cut small ledges and perch. Our stove purrs, slowly melting part of this frozen mountain. We are both very tired but are happy to be above most of the stone-fall danger.
I lead off up a good névé groove but before long I'm wading in energy sapping snow. Am I getting too old for this game? Each high step — snow collapses — snow compresses — snow compacts to take my weight. The equation between height gain and height loss seems scarcely in my favour. Jim takes over and we move, tortoise slow, up this wide slipping sheet, strangely oblivious to the fact that we are much too far to the left to access the east top of the mountain.
I'm very relieved when Jim insists on keeping the lead but concerned about the overall stability of this upper face. There is clearly still a risk of avalanche.
Jim is now reduced to sweeping away the surface layer of powder-snow before any upward progress can be made. Progress is painfully slow but a rock hump on the ridge draws us on and eventually provides a shaky flake belay (most of the rock on Suj Tilla is of very poor quality).
I take over the lead and whilst focussing on step making, nearly plunge through a massive cornice and down the north face. Clouds are piling up around me, the wind is rising, large snowflakes start to fall. I am perched at the apex of the mountain on an overhanging knife-edge of unstable snow. Suddenly the precariousness of our situation dawns on me! I shout down to Jim that this is one of the scariest places I've ever stood.
I can see both tops at either end of the summit ridge; to the west lies a great double meringue-like cornice of a top, and further away, to the east, a snow draped rocky top. I climb up onto our rock hump to get a better view and quickly rule out a traverse to the east top. I make some progress along the ridge towards the west top and then (in the interest of any future grandchildren), decide that climbing out onto this super-cornice is taking summit bagging a step beyond sanity.
I return to Jim to discuss our descent options. This doesn't take long as there is only one! As Jim rigs up the abseil, I glance at my watch. It is nearly 1300 — we have been climbing for 15 hours and my body knows it. This is a mad game!
Keeping concentration on the long and gruelling descent tests us both to the limit. We curse the tangling ropes but offer praise to St. Ablarkov. As nightfall descends our headtorches beams begin to fade. Still far below, flickers of light at Camp 2, symbolise a safe haven. As the angle eases we start to solo down-climb, our respective 60 m ropes snaking and coiling, sliding past then waiting for reunion. Jim's voice from above asks me if I've reached the bergshrund as I climb out of it.
The ever-helpful Chumbi is climbing up the avalanche debris to meet us. He offers to carry our gear but I'm too tired to take it off. My headtorch battery is dead and my body has lost all power. I stumble into camp, after 22 hours of continuous climbing, in a zombie-like state, drink a cup of soup and then collapse.
We both wake, feeling very dehydrated, the sun already hot in the sky. As we pack our gear for the descent, the 'advanced guard' of the Indian Navy expedition arrives. Our peaceful site is now milling with people. We renew friendships with Divyesh Muni and his wife Vineeta who are with the Navy expedition as the camera team (Jim and I made the first ascent of Rangrik Rang, 6553 m, with Divyesh in 1994).
The navy team quickly take over our campsite! We then all descend to navy ABC on the Yankchar glacier. Jim and I enjoy their hospitality and marvel at the vast piles of brand new climbing equipment (including 1400 m of fixed rope!).
The following day we descend to our base camp. Dawa is clearly pleased to see us after his lonely occupation for the last few days. He reaches his peak of culinary excellence in making a celebratory apple pie which we eat with deliberate enthusiasm.
On 1 October we pack up base camp, leaving no trace of our occupation, and head down the valley.
Sitting on the dusty steps of a little stone house in the now deserted village of Ralam, I savour our intimate knowledge of Suj Tilla. Before us, high above the long foreground ridge of the Yangchar Dhura, the mountains upper ice sheathed flanks thrust to a twin-topped apex. Our summit flies a thin flag of wind whipped powder-snow.
On 6 October Jim and I are back in Delhi, reunited with Alka and Paramjeet. We celebrate friendship and adventure and enjoy a good night out on the town.
It is in the contrasts of life that we are tested and it's richness our reward. Sharing that richness with friends is part of our humanity. Suj Tilla has become a memory but already we look forward to future expeditions together.
Graham Little and Jim Lowther made the first ascent of Suj Tilla West, 6373 m, in the Kumaun Himalaya on the 27/28 September 2002. They climbed it by a fairly central line on the south face after a failed attempt on the north-west face. The route, named 'Moonlight Express', was climbed from a camp at 5270 m in a continuous 22 hour round trip. It is likely that Suj Tilla East is actually the highest point on the mountain — a height of 6394 m is recorded on restricted Indian maps.