Chiring We Revisited

Martin Moran

'Dear Mr. Moran
With reference to your expedition to Peak 6196 m on the Unta Dhura pass permission is not granted. You are requested to seek another objective in an open area'

Just two months from departure our dream of traversing the Unta Dhura pass from Munsiari to Malari and of exploring some of the unclimbed peaks thereabouts was dashed. 'Army personnel have been changed this spring — the new officers don't want any trouble' — the verdict of my friend and agent in Delhi, C. S. Pandey.

I went back to my maps. Tweleve adventurers had joined this trip on the promise of an epic trek, virgin territory and a glimpse of Tibet. It just wouldn't wash to offer them a standard 6000er in Gangotri. We needed something remote and alluring, and it was then that I noticed Chiring We, an isolated summit of 6559 m sitting at the head of the Kalabaland glacier. With a constrained approach up the Ralam valley that posed no threat to border sensitivities the local authorities might just run with this one. The mountain had been climbed just once before, in 1979 by Harish Kapadia's party. My only reference was a grainy black and white picture of the corniced summit dome in Soli Mehta and Harish Kapadia's book Exploring the Hidden Himalaya. My 1:150,000 map promised a long difficult glacier approach.1 The ingredients of hope and uncertainty were mixing in an irresistible blend. A new application was submitted and on 30 August 2004, just 10 days before departure, we were given the green light by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. A bit of brinksmanship often pays off!


  1. See article 'Mountain of Long Life', by Harish Kapadia, HJ Vol. 36 , p. 68. High Himalaya Unknown Valleys and Across Peaks and Passes in Kumaun by Harish Kapadia also covers the area and the climb.

Munsiari Morning

On every trip there is a point where the adventure starts for real. We had already been travelling over the foothills of Kumaun in low cloud and drizzle for two days, and our true initiation to the Himalaya came early in the morning at Munsiari rest house where we woke to see the hazy but magnificent outline of the five peaks of the Panch Chuli massif across the Gori Ganga valley. The spectacular symmetry of these five cooking pots which rise to 6904 m bears compare to any mountain tableau in the Himalaya. With this backdrop revealed, Munsiari was transformed from a dull and sleepy provincial backwater to a stunning hill station, which could attract tourists in droves were it not for the tortuous approach roads.

Beyond the town lay the vast mountainous border region, dissected by the Gori Ganga river system, an area shorn of its former vibrancy of trade and culture by the closure of the Tibetan border in 1962. The Ralam river is a major tributary, draining the Kalabaland and Yankchar glaciers and ploughing a sizeable gorge of its own to join the Gori Ganga some 10 km north of Munsiari. To our knowledge no foreign expedition had attempted the ascent of Chiring We, and apart from the Suj Tilla expedition of Graham Little and Jim Lowther in 2002, no British party had trekked to the head of the Ralam valley since the Scottish Himalayan expedition of 1950.

In choosing Chiring We our group of 15 was encouraged more than anything by its name, which means the mountain of long life. The party was diverse in composition. We had two qualified British Mountain Guides, Jonathan Preston and myself, several veterans of climbs in the Alps and Andes, raw beginners, one of whom had only ever descended a mountain on a snow-board, my 17 year old son Alex and a Glaswegian Buddhist in search of enlightenment rather than summits. We could not be accused of being over-restrictive in team selection!

Ralam Valley Trek

Our first day's trek of 12 km to Paton village on the east slopes of the Gori Ganga began with joyous optimism and ended in an oppressive humidity to which Buddhist David had already fallen victim, serious heatstroke being narrowly averted. Paton is attractively spread out over three levels on the steep terraced slopes. We were allowed to camp in the school compound. Village headmen Gop and Prabat Singh were our porter Sirdars for the trek and most of our 65 porters were local men. We were invited to take spiced tea in their homes with their families. Naveen, our cook, procured extra oil and fresh potatoes so that finger chips could be added to the dinner menu, while we enjoyed a luxuriant night of humid warmth and starlight amidst the surrounding forest of Himalayan oaks. Our arrival provided a rare and significant input to the local economy, which is otherwise dependent on subsistence farming and shepherding vast herds of sheep and goats in the summer months.

The continuing trail traversed high above the precipitous Gori Ganga valley, ascending to a tiny stone temple at 2600 m on a dividing spur where the path turned to the northeast and entered the reserved forest of Ralam village. An impressive and foreboding view unfolded up the Ralam gorge, a deep trench scarred by landslips from which there emanated the dull roar of its river 500 metres below.

Chiring We

Chiring We

That evening we camped in the jaws of the valley in a clearing beside the forest bungalow of Lingrani. This was a place of dank oppression with a groundcover of nettles and water plantains, a liberal scattering of fresh cow dung and, almost inevitably, an evening downpour. Bhotia families from Ralam and their livestock were already moving down to their winter settlements in the lower foothills.

The third day of trekking to Marjhali presented a challenging rise in altitude from 2200 to 3650 m. In 14 km the trail took us from subtropical jungle to open grazing alps, where stunted juniper and straggling silver birch formed the only surviving woodland. The final stage to base camp passed through Ralam village, one of the highest and most remote in the region. The people were busy gathering harvests of grain and vegetables, which included enormous green cabbages. Large collections of medicinal plant roots were drying in the morning sun. The rapier blade of 6373 m Suj Tilla, known as the 'Matterhorn of Kumaun' dominated the skyline, but Chiring We lay far out of the sight. Base camp was established on alluvial flats 5 km further up the valley at 3750 m, just below the gaping snout of the Sankalpa glacier, from which the Ralam river roared forth, swollen by the recent spell of warm weather.

Blizzard on the Kalabaland

The lack of snow cover was quite alarming. There had been little or no monsoon. From base camp a stone-filled hollow on the north side of the glacier gave two hours of purgatorial marching up to the remarkable junction at 4250 m where the Kalabaland and Yankchar ice flows meet head-on and are squeezed through a 90 degree bend into the trench of the Sankalpa. From here we could make faster progress, walking northeast up the dry ice of the Kalabaland glacier for 3 km to 4500 m where an advanced base was hewn out of the boulder-coated moraines on the southwest edge. In dismal cloudy weather this wilderness of stone and dead ice induced depression and despondency. Chiring We should now have been visible but was wreathed in mist, and we could see no further than a large icefall barring progress 2 km upstream. Without a cover of snow to fill the ice chasms this presented a worrying obstacle.

Chiring We from lower Kalabaland Glacier.

23. Chiring We from lower Kalabaland Glacier. (Martin Moran)

Chiring We group from the Kalabaland glacier. Chiring We II on right.

24. Chiring We group from the Kalabaland glacier. Chiring We II on right. (Martin Moran)

In 1979 the Indians had climbed this on its right (northwest) side, so when Jonathan and I made a recce on the first fine morning of the trip, we were naturally enticed to that side, traversing a maze of dry crevasses to gain a hopeful ramp close under the rock cliffs on the far right edge. Progress halted at 5000 m as we perched nervously on 40 degree ice slopes which plunged into ugly chasms. We retreated with our tails down, cursing the waste of the best of our strength and bearing the irony of hindsight that a much easier line was obvious up the left side.

Final slope of the west ridge of Chiring We.

19. Final slope of the west ridge of Chiring We. (Martin Moran)

Burphu Dhura from 5800 m on the Kalabaland glacier.

20. Burphu Dhura from 5800 m on the Kalabaland glacier. (Martin Moran)

Final ridge of Chiring We; Kalanka, Hardeol and Tirsuli group behind.

21. Final ridge of Chiring We; Kalanka, Hardeol and Tirsuli group behind. (Martin Moran)

Breaking trail to Chiring We west ridge.

22. Breaking trail to Chiring We west ridge. (Martin Moran)

Jonathan pioneered this the following day, fixing ropes on the steeper sections, and on 21 September seven of us assisted by high altitude porters Ajay and Naveen moved through the icefall. Heavy snowfall commenced as we made camp at 5180 m and our porters departed leaving us with a week of food.

We retreated into a hibernation that lasted 48 hours, broken only by repeated sorties to dig our tents out of the mounting volume of snow. Stu, Liam and Paul spread out in geodesic luxury while four unfortunates squeezed into two single-skin and ultra-light Summit Raider tents, whose dimensions compare unfavourably to childrens' play-shelters. The failure of the monsoon was quickly compensated as the fresh snow piled to a depth of 80 cms. On day three we decided that if the storm did not abate in another 8 hours we would bale out. Once you have over a metre of powder snow it is all but impossible to break a trail, even downhill, and permanent entrapment becomes a serious possibility.

With propitious timing the blizzard petered out that morning. The sun emerged through the receding veil of cloud and Chiring We was inspirationally revealed in brilliant fresh raiment, a lofty dome of snow buttressed by ribs and gullies some 1200 m high. Provided we could avoid avalanche risk and get up to the head of the glacier at the foot of the west ridge we might yet have a chance.

Folded rock strata on Lalla We (6123 m) from 6050 m on Chiring We.

25. Folded rock strata on Lalla We (6123 m) from 6050 m on Chiring We. (Martin Moran)

Suj Tilla from the lower Kalabaland glacier.

26. Suj Tilla from the lower Kalabaland glacier. (Martin Moran)

Torrid Trail

Sagging under a 20 kg load and baked by the intense radiation and glare from the sun, I completed my count of 200 steps and slumped down, near to despair. Despite working in shifts to break a trail, our seven stalwarts had gained only 200 m in altitude and covered 1 mile in distance in five hours. We were planning to camp on top of a prominent rognon in the centre of the glacier which the 1979 party had named 'the Elephant's head'. Though not yet midday and not even level with the base of the rognon, we gave in, put up the tents and tried to recover with mugs of sweetened herbal tea.

Radical tactics and a little moonlighting were required if we were to surmount the Elephant's head. As soon as the sun dropped and clouds gathered at 4 p.m. three of us left camp without loads and spent two hours making the next kilometre of trail before returning to bed. At 4 a.m. the other four left our now-frozen camp, and pushed ahead to continue the path-building operation before the sun rose. We followed with heavier loads, ascending the glacier slopes on the left side of the Elephant's head to gain a high plateau at 5800 m, virginal in its unblemished expanse of snow.

To our west rose the shapely horn of 6105 m Kalabaland Dhura, to our north the rounded ridge of 6334 m Bamba Dhura, both close and eminently climbable. Chiring We kept an icy reserve, rising majestically in a heavily corniced ridge above an initial band of ice-cliffs. We toiled a further kilometre towards our peak and made camp on a glorious afternoon that purged all the stress of recent days. 6145 m Burphu Dhura was a coronation cake of snow flutes and sinuous ridges to our south. The interlocking shoulders of Suj Tilla, 6510 m Chaudhara and 6537 m Rajramba massed on the southeast skyline. As the sun dropped and the shadows began to lengthen our contingent of energetic youngsters, Paul, Stu and Liam, began a trail towards a large snow ramp cutting the cliff beneath Chiring We's west ridge. The summit was still 750 m above us and no one seriously believed that it could be attained in a single day, even without loads.

Our war of attrition was rejoined in the dead of a bitter night at 2 a.m. Geoff and Chris W. had agreed to be the stalking horses and left to continue the trail through the ice band. Now strengthened by the arrival of Jonathan and Chris H., who had moved up from Camp 1 in a day, the rest of us would follow at dawn. I prayed through a sleepless night that the summit ridge might consist of wind-packed snow rather than the debilitating powder through which we'd been wading for the past two days.

A Summit Romp Rising at 5 a.m. we spied the lights of Chris and Geoff high on the snow ramp through the band. Their progress was exceeding our most optimistic forecasts. Remarkably, we took less than 90 minutes to follow their trail and catch them at 6050 m on a saddle below the west ridge where Tibet's brown plateau and distant rolling ranges were revealed, making a stark contrast to the ice sculptures of Nanda Devi and her cohort of snow angels to our west.

Breaking tail to west ridge of Chiring We.

27. Breaking tail to west ridge of Chiring We. (Martin Moran)

Reaching the summit of Chiring We.

28. Reaching the summit of Chiring We. (Martin Moran)

With just 500 m to go we suddenly felt free and invincible. As if in tune with our new mood, the snow firmed up and we traversed delicately rightwards over the wind-pack to the west ridge crest. No summit climb above 6000 m is ever easy, but this day was recompense for all our previous trials. Keeping safely to the side of the corniced north side we kicked steps up the 40 degree ridge to a final dome, where 17 year old Alex took the lead to claim his first Himalayan summit. By midday all nine of us were on the top. The view ranged from the peaks of Western Nepal and across the Tibetan wastes from where 7728 m Gurla Mandhata and holy Mount Kailash swept skyward in majestic isolation. The ranges of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary were resplendent to our west. With just a couple of hours care on the steep initial descent we could treasure these impressions for a lifetime.

Nanda Devi from the summit of Chiring We.

29. Nanda Devi from the summit of Chiring We. (Martin Moran)

Moonlit Return

A day later and at 5 p.m. shadows were stealthily lengthening across the lower Kalabaland glacier. At summit camp our day had dawned in minus 20 degree frost, then swung to enervating heat as we plodded back down our deep trail, and was now to end in eerie splendour. We had cleared our top camps, removed the ropes fixed on the icefall and left a stash of kit for our porters to collect the next day. We were weary beyond repair and yet wanted to get back to base camp whatever the hour. The lower glacier had been a river of dry ice on our ascent, but now was covered in half a metre of snow. Even with a gentle angle of descent we still struggled under heavy loads.

As night fell and the early stars emerged, a glow appeared over the enigmatic spike of Suj Tilla and a full moon rose with imperious beauty, flooding our glacier with its ghostly light. Save for the crunch of our steps total silence reigned. No one spoke much, yet we all shared the magic of those hours when a hard journey is nearly done and the mountains give their reward.

After an interminable slog through the stony moraines past the glacier snout we reached the haven of camp at 9 p.m. Our friends came out to greet us and cook Naveen prepared us a mountain of rice, dal and coleslaw salad followed by tinned fruit and cream. Then we made our first bed on dry ground for nearly two weeks; at last we had reached our heaven.


The second ascent of Chiring We (6559 m) in Kumaun Himalaya by its west ridge by a British expedition. The summit was reached on 26 September by nine members — Geoff Dawson, Chris Harle, Alex Moran, Martin Moran, Jonathan Preston, Stuart Reid, Liam Warren, Paul Watson and Chris Wheatley.


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