Resembling the shape of a needle, towering high above the Yankchari Dhurra glacier, deep into the lush Ralam valley of Kumaun hills, Suj Tilla1 has been claimed by many as the finest piece of mountain architecture in the Indian Himalaya. The mountain remained unclimbed even after four previous attempts by some of the best mountaineers. The complex maze of ice flutings, rock falls, and an impregnably complicated ridge and face system kept the summit of Suj Tilla devoid of human presence. I had chanced upon Suj Tilla first in 1989, whilst on a trek to Brijganga Dhura, and twice thereafter, and it had remained dominant among my dreams ever since. I always knew that I would return some day to meet Suj Tilla, for it had become a familiar friend who beckoned me time and again.
The nine-member team that finally stood poised at Delhi consisted of seven who had not undertaken a single mountaineering expedition in their entire life. Only my deputy leader, Amit Pande had done some serious climbing before, and was trained in mountain search and rescue. Accompanying us in our venture were the filming crew, the husband-wife duo of Divyesh and Vineeta Muni. Both were fine mountaineers with a commendable track record of high altitude filming and photography.2
Finally on 15 September morning we left New Delhi in a chartered bus and headed for the road head of Munsyari. we reached Munsyari in the late evening of 16 September, with the sky clearing up at the precise moment to give us a moonlit view of the glistening Panch Chuli massif. The next two days went as we repacked and made porter loads of our expedition equipment, ration, kerosene oil, tents, and other sundry items. In the early hours of 19 September our entourage of climbers, support staff and 75 porters left Munsyari and made a beeline, descending steeply, to the bank of Gori Ganga, till Lilam, before climbing sharply to Paton; which would be our first day of halt.
From Paton we climbed laboriously till the Harsling goddess temple and then descended very steeply to the densely forested campsite of Liungrani. The dense overhead canopy of the forest did not allow much sun to reach the ground, hence we pitched our tents on the moist and mildewed ground next to the rushing Ralam gad (river). The following morning we crossed the gad over the log bridge (that had been ever since I remembered) and confronted the two landslide areas, which were as precariously balanced as ever, threatening to cascade at the slightest provocation, tumbling down unceremoniously into the foaming Ralam gad. Once across that, we crossed several shepherd settlements and their one thousand sheep dotting the verdant landscape with white spots, and then climbed further to Kiltam. At 3350 m it was a flattish camping ground right next to the riverbed; very breezy, freezing and adorable due to a mammoth waterfall rushing down from the west. We were only a day short from Ralam village, the last settlement en route to our BC. Our brief halt at Ralam was memorable due to some very inquisitive children and animals, primarily a white fluffy puppy, who kept all of us rollicking with laughter and also due to the first view of the stupendous north face of Suj Tilla that left all of us speechless in amazement at the supernal symmetry. On 23 September we left Ralam and walked amidst less vegetation since we had climbed rather high, and about 2 hours away we crossed the Ralam gad over a rickety bridge and overcoming a very steep field of loose rock and boulders the trail lead us sharply over two ridges before we finally reached the snow covered BC area at 4260 m.
On 25 September was a clear crisp dawn and I drew the feather jacket close to the body with satisfaction since the day was perfect. We were still in the shadows of the eastern ridge and a light breeze made the air decidedly freezing and nippy. With the breakfast safely tucked inside, the first batch comprising the lead Sherpas and the members took off at half past seven for the Yankchari Dhura (pass). Immediately above the BC, the path led to a rushing stream and a huge ice basin that had several feet of soft snow atop. The trail gradually became steeper and we eventually entered the scree and loose-rock infested narrow gully that will take us to the pass right above. Far away and up I saw the Sherpas and the lead members cresting the pass ridge. It was quite a feat to reach the pass itself since the path was steep, made up of snow covered loose rocks and we had to gain a little over 500 m as well, before we would descend sharply on the other side. As we gained height, we had to pause at regular intervals, not only to catch our breaths but also to gasp and gaze in wonder at the surrounding panorama that unfolded magically like a Japanese fan. The mesmerizing peaks of Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, Burphu Dhura, Suli Top, Chiring We, etc. stood like silent sentinels guarding the Himalayan heritage. Though I had seen these mountains many times earlier the sight was equally wonderful and memorable. Cameras came out in dozens and for a while all one could hear were the shutters going berserk. What was most poignant was the towering Nanda Devi massif to our west that dwarfed everything else on the horizon.
Finally after two and half hours we gained the 4828 m pass. As we topped the ridge, Suj Tilla rose majestically like a monolith of sheer ice and rock. Seeing it up so close, we finally realized the gravity of the task ahead and also the audacity of our ambitious enterprise. After a frenzied photo session we followed the trails left by the Sherpas who had already descended onto the Yankchari glacier where we would establish the advance base camp (ABC). The 200 m descent was not only steep but also the soft snow made our progress rather tiresome and trying. Soon we opted for glissading (sliding over the snow). Save for some ungainly tumbles all of us made it safely to the bottom and stepped on the glacier. A further easy amble of half a kilometre over snow and ice, got us to the ABC site and quickly rigging up the Satellite tent, we dumped our loads inside. To the southeast, the huge glistening summit of Chaudhura watched us silently as we made our journey across the glacier. By 2.00 p.m. everyone was back to the BC, much to the delight of the cook, who liked to see us well fed and cared. It snowed all through the night and the temperature dropped to 2 degrees below zero. Following two more days of heavy load ferry, the first team comprising of Amit Pande, the film crew couple of Divyesh and Vineeta Muni, 4 Sherpas (Tsange Puri, Nima Thondup, Nima Dorje, Ongta) and I occupied the 4670 m high ABC on 28 September.
In the afternoon while others arranged the ABC and did load sorting for further ferry, Divyesh and I went ahead into the icefall for route finding. Immediately beyond ABC the snow slopes went down to a seemingly endless longitudinal crevasse — which we crossed over a narrow snow bridge — and then the slope curved up to the central glacier ridge. The ridge had equally steep slope on the other side riddled with crevasse. At a point we found a connecting ridge joined almost perpendicular to the one on which we walked that led safely to the beginning of the icefall through which we would climb for the southwest face of Sujtilla.
Our load ferry above ABC on 29 September commenced on a cold and cloudless morning. We carried fairly heavy loads of ration, equipment and tents. From the previous high point, Lt Amit Pande took lead for route opening through the icefall. The initial height gain was gradual through mixed ground of ice, rocks and transverse crevasses. As we looked back over the Yankchari Dhura ridge, the towering summits of Nanda Kot and Nanda Devi filled up the horizon, standing proud and overwhelming all the numerous peaks that dotted the skyline. The electric blue sky was brilliant and we got some excellent shots of the peaks around. Just before we entered the broken world of the main icefall, we met the liaison officer and a Sherpa of the Indo-British team, on their way back to the BC. This team had preceded us about a week on the mountain. We learned that the two British climbers (Jim Lowther and Graham Little) had opted for the southwest face route after they found their originally intended north face route far too technically difficult and hazardous to be climbed within their resources. Both were old friends and I was glad to hear their news. A little later we joined the British route through the icefall and the frightful crevasses. Since the route had already been opened by them and had seen some amount of traverse earlier, we did not face the problem of route opening through the ice field. This did not necessarily hasten our progress as the sun was well up now and the soft snow pulled us down like quicksand. Around 4 hours later we ascended to 5350 m, on a tiny flat patch of ice surrounded by huge crevasses and bergschrunds, which would serve as the Camp 1 (C1) for the rest of the climb. Jim and Graham were just winding their tent and other gear. It was a happy reunion and several photo sessions followed.
While Jim narrated their experience and the route they had taken, I studied the face carefully through which we too would climb. As I swept the 1 km near-vertical southwest face through the binocular, I realised with some amount of dismay that contrary to my earlier belief and plan, there was not even the tiniest possible ledge or protrusion anywhere to pitch another camp on the entire face, nor even a bivouac. I estimated the gradient to vary from 60 to 75 degree all along with perhaps higher gradients on the final pitch close to the summit. Suffice it to say at this point that my estimate did prove rather accurate in the days to come. The verdict was clear and certain — we had to do the ascent at one go from C1. Not an insurmountable task I admit, but difficult nevertheless with an inexperienced team and certainly riddled with objective hazards as the rock and ice conditions were very rotten. Jim also confirmed that the rocks were so brittle and loosely slab-piled that they would break and fall at the slightest provocation. The ice was black and blue and bullet-proof to the end with millions of small rocks embedded that started shooting down like missiles once the sun touched the face and the ice surface started melting. According to the British team the most suitable period for route opening and climbing the mountain would be between midnight and 10 a.m.
The first communication at 6.00 a.m. on 1 October with the BC told me that at 5.15 a.m. a team of 4 members and 1 porter had left for Ralam We. We too packed our rucksacks, wound up the tents and started off for C1. The sun was bright and scorching. Around 10.30 a.m. we spotted two tiny black dots on the summit ridge of Ralam We, making their way upwards slowly but steadily. We stopped and observed their progress. Around 11.15 a.m. they reached the top and we broke into a round of applause as this happened to be the first summit of the expedition and to the extent of my knowledge a first ascent of the peak. We soon reached C1 and set up our tents. Suj Tilla SW face, sparkling like polished glass under the glaring sun, looked bewitchingly captivating and alluring. The complete face was avalanche and stone riddled and through all the maze of ice and rock we managed to trace a possible route all the way up.
Though we left the refuge of our sleeping bags next day at 4.00 a.m. we could only strike out from C1 around 5.45 a.m. due to some last minute hitches in equipment sorting and gear packs. It took us around an hour to climb over the bergschrund. Judging a firm section of ice across the bergschrund as I put my weight on it, I plunged deep into the opening as the ice parted to reveal a dark dungeon below. Shortly we laid out the first roll of static rope. The slope was about 55 degrees and apparently safe from rock falls or avalanches. The morning was windy and chilly as an overhead breeze blew down from the summit. The slope steepened right after the first pitch. Sidestepping the icefall chutes we headed for the rock bands falling down from the south ridge. We planned to reach the bottom of the rock bands and then traverse along the lower edge of the rock bands till they merged with the ice chute. We gained 400 m by 9.00 a.m. and I called off further climb since the sun was well up and rocks had started shooting down the face. Leaving the balance equipment behind we reached back C1 within 40 minutes.
Article 11 (Jim Lowther)
19. Graham Little high on the south face — Camp 2 was on the glacier at the foot of the face 1100 m below.
Article 11 (Jim Lowther)
20. Northwest face of Suj Tilla: the attempted line took the obvious ice-filled groove on the right hand buttress.
Article 11 (Graham Little)
21. Panch Chuli II, seen from Suj Tilla.
Article 13 (Graham Little)
22. View from summit of Suj Tilla, looking north.
Article 13 (Graham Little)
23. View from the summit of Suj Tilla, looking southeast. The higher East peak 6394 m is seen behind.
Article 13 (Huzefa Electricwala)
24. Yurgolak fort, overlooking the Shyok river.
25. Slimur fort in the Nlibra valley.
On 3, 4 and 5 October we continued opening the route, carrying loads and setting up ropes. As the weather remained good we decided to attempt the summit on the 6th with a team of Divyesh, Pande, Nima Dorje and myself.
Vineeta informed us that 6 October depicted the beginning of navratri (a period of holiness and festivity for Hindus) and it seemed the perfect day for our first summit attempt. The real [day] started at 11.00 p.m. on 5 October with steaming cups of tea for the summit team. We left the refuge of our tents precisely at midnight and guided by the headlamps headed upwards through the crevasse and avalanche riddled snowfield. It took us almost 6 hrs to attain the high point of fixed ropes. A continuous barrage of rock and icefalls had prevented us from looking up for most of the way. The surrounding valleys were by now shining under the glowing sun. We commenced further fixing of ropes. At several places, some distance away to the west, we saw the protections placed by the British climbers, which was an assurance that we were on the right track. We had earlier decided to follow up the slope till the apex of the twin rock overhang features as the British team had done and then deviate to the east and climb directly for the rocky hump that apparently seemed at the same height as the other summit. As we gained ground it became clear that the summit ridge of Suj Tilla comprised of more than three humps any of which could be termed as the summit since they all looked of identical altitude. Since the British team had summited near the snow dome (that is seen from the north) we decided to go for the one further to the east if possible.
Lt Pande and Nima Dorje took the lead from the previous day's high point. Both were surefooted enough and took turns at leading. The ascent was steep and taxing with the gradient varying around 70 degrees, without a let up anywhere. Continuous front pointing and long stances at the fixing pitches made our ankles and toes ache. Around 2.15 p.m. we reached 6285 m, from where we could see the summit hump, about 100 m distant. A pitch earlier, we had abandoned our original plan of going for the rocky hump when we found the snow slope extremely dangerous and avalanche prone, and retraced our path back to the couloir heading straight up to the snow dome. Now the summit looked within touching distance. Mercifully, a moderate cloud had smeared the sky all around, thereby reducing the fury of the sun considerably and a breeze only added a distinct chill to the air. For the moment it was pleasant but we also knew that it wouldn't last forever. Dark and ominous clouds were gathering near the neighbouring summits and swirling mist of ice and snow rose from beneath. And at this point I decided to return. Though Suj Tilla had remained my dream mountain since 1989 and I had always wished to reach its summit, I discovered that my decision to descend from such close distance, when no more objective hazards remained, came easily. As a leader I had far more important objectives to accomplish. Certain dreams are only meant to remain so.
Soon a moderate blizzard started that metamorphosed into a blinding one a little later. The three climbers above me disappeared from sight and so did my surroundings. To descend faster I opted for shoulder abseil for the rest of the journey. Magically the blizzard stopped within an hour, though the summit remained ensconced in cloud and mist. As I tumbled into C1, Vineeta greeted me with a bear hug and a steaming cup of rich coffee along with the heart-warming news of the three having summited at 3.40 p.m. Two hours later everyone was back at the C1. The expedition and the climb had been remarkable for more reasons than one and it was a credible achievement for the Indian Navy and the Naval Mountaineering Cell. We had picked up a challenging goal and had delivered what we had promised. We all were happy and content to the brim. When I relayed the news to ABC in the evening there was a loud cheer from them that reverberated amidst the mountains for hours. But unaware to us, the weather was about to transform.
The barometer fell alarmingly, 5 mbar over 6 hours. We were right in the middle of a full-blown storm. The blizzard howled and raged with increasing fury. Snow flurry poured from all around like waterfall and deluged the slopes as well as the small platform of the tents. The force of the gale threatened to uproot the tents and blow us into pieces. The kitchen tent collapsed eventually under the snow build up burying much of our provisions. It snowed incessantly through the night, amounting to nearly 14 inches of snow, making the whole place very prone to avalanches. We decided to abandon C1 for some time and descend to ABC and allow the mountain to stabilize before making another attempt.
It was only on 10 October that the second team could start. In the early hours of 10 October the second summit team along with Pande, Tsange and Nima Thondup left for C1. If everything went as planned then they would summit on the 11th and on 12th while they descended from C1 to ABC, the film crew and I would head for Ralam Dhura pass along with a Sherpa. Starting at midnight of 11 October, the four members and the two Sherpas summited in the early hours. The lead pair of Tsange and Balaji reaching the summit hump at 08.05 a.m. while the rest made it within the next hour. This was a great success. Nine people in all had summited. The mountain remained friendly and forgiving without expressing any signs of displeasure or anything remotely hostile so far. All the summiteers were back to C1 by noon, having removed a substantial quantity of ropes and equipment from the face. Around 2.00 p.m. as expected, the sky darkened and the snow started with renewed vigour. The snow continued unabated through the night and the barometer remained alarmingly low, reducing the possibility of our venture for Ralam Dhura pass the next day to a considerable extent.
One peek outside my tent in the misty morning of 12 October assured me that Ralam Dhura pass was out of question and so was any further venture. Our tryst with good weather had ended and the mountain was now telling us that we had outlived our hospitality and it was time for us to return. The huge accumulation of fresh snow at ABC and C1 had gained alarming proportion and further delay in evacuating the glacier could seriously jeopardize our passage to the BC. The visibility at C1 was literally zero and I told Pande to descend immediately along with everyone, even if it meant leaving some amount of rope and equipment on the mountain. The crevasses had started opening up and the slopes all around had become very treacherous. Speed and caution mattered. The mountains were slowly turning a shade darker and it is always wise to listen to them and leave when the time is up. By the time the C1 team reached ABC, I had packed off the ABC party with the first return load ferry across the Yankchari Dhura pass to BC. After a hurried brunch, I along with the balance of the team headed for BC and made it by twenty minutes past two. The whole BC had transformed in appearance by now. The glacial stream too had become a mere trickle as the winter cold had frozen the upper reaches. I called up the Indo Tibetan Border Police post commander at Munsyari and asked him to dispatch the porters along with the Sirdar.
Over the next two days our caravan ambled and tumbled through the lush green forests and the fields finally reaching Munsyari on 17 October noon. Thus ended our Suj Tilla saga and the journey that had been an unforgettable voyage of adventure and discovery.
The second ascent of Sujtilla West (6373 m) by the Indian Navy team during 15 September to 19 October 2002. The team comprised of Lt Cdr S Dam (leader), Lt Amit Pande (dy leader), Lt Cdr PS Vombatkere, Lt P Srivastava, Lt KS Balaji, Lt A Rajora, Surg Lt P Anand, Rajkumar CHERA, A Chowdhury PO, Divyesh and Vineeta Muni (film crew). Three members summited on 06 October and six members summited on 11 October.