Thalay Sagar, Harvest Moon

Swiss mountaineers successfully climb the summit of Thalay Sagar (6904 m) in the Indian Himalaya

Stephan Siegrist

After an exhausting work day we returned to ABC at 5300 m. The first fixed ropes were installed and suffering from headaches we crawled into our sleeping bags. The beautiful weather together with a great, motivated team did not allow us a proper acclimatisation and so we reached advanced base camp only 5 days after our Delhi city tour. For some of us this quick ascent to ABC was not a very clever move — most of us suffered from heavy headaches more than once.

The gas cooker was gasping as much for oxygen as I, when I asked my French-speaking team mate Denis Burdet, what the dinner for tonight would be. My French, which was already quite bad in school, was definitely not improving on an oxygen poor altitude of over 5000 m. 'Let's eat just a little — isn't there some soup left from the Koreans?' I heard Denis murmur from the depth of his sleeping bag. Within minutes we had prepared the devilish hot soup, which brought us to tears and took our breath away. At least our throats and stomachs were quite warm for a while after this exotic meal.

Our 'soup suppliers' team with leader Kim Hyung had installed their base camp already 18 days ago in the beautiful, narrow Kedar tal valley. Kim, who had tried to climb the north face for the third time, had lost his brother Sang-man Shin in 1998 only a few metres before the summit. Nobody knows exactly how the tragic accident happened because none of the expedition members survived.

We needed more supplies so Denis and I were happy to descend to BC at 4700 m. Our two team partners and the two base camp managers gave us a warm welcome and Dawa, our Indian cook, surprised us with a delicious Indian dinner.

The Croatian Zvonimir Pisonic, a young photographer and assistant at the school of arts in Lucerne, Switzerland, was on his first expedition and Rob Frost, an American friend, camera man and a very experienced mountaineer filmed the expedition. Since Zvonimir spoke Croatian, Rob, English, Denis, French and the rest of us spoke German we had a team together that reminded us somehow of the tower of Babel; 6 people — 5 different languages.

Thalay Sagar north face.

33. Thalay Sagar north face. (Stephen Siegrist)

On the following day we returned to ABC, crossing the 4 km long moraine of the Kedar glacier. In teams of two we had now secured the endless icefield. Under a stable ice roof we found a perfect spot for our small single wall tent in front of the first pillar. This camping spot on the north face at 5800 m was sunny until the last rays of sunlight disappeared. The next day Denis and I climbed the first metres of the 'wall of shadow', that's how we named it. We had to manage steep granite — ice climbing which didn't allow us to climb free. As we had expected the cracks were filled with ice and the difficulties on this route could not be under estimated. This side of the pillar seemed to be the actual north side of the mountain, never warmed by the slightest sunbeam.

Change of shifts in ABC: Ralph and Thomas said good bye the next morning, touching their heads as a sign of a headache. Ralph has already been my expedition partner earlier. His cheerful character and his very social behaviour are a gift for every expedition. Thomas, our 'elephant baby' was the youngest and biggest of all team members; these were his first experiences in the high mountains. The two of them climbed an ice ramp which crossed the 'shadow buttress' halfway. This part of the wall alone took more time than we had estimated. The fresh snow from the previous weeks hadn't consolidated and made climbing in the proximate chimney very difficult. We knew we had to rush if we wanted to climb this part of the wall before beginning of the great cold, which was supposed to begin at the beginning of October. The next day we wanted to secure three rope lengths at the 'half moon crack' but first we had to traverse the 'wall of complaint', a 900 m long ice ramp. This granite gap was visible from very far below. We started calling it 'banana crack' and at that time we didn't know yet that we would relax only three weeks later under banana trees at Hampi Beach, South India. Fortunately Camelot no. 5 clamped tight on the outer edge of its aluminium callipers — otherwise we would have had to rename banana-crack into crack of horror!

During the last sun rays we finished our day's work. Three steep ice/mixed lengths followed until we reached the bottom of our key position on 6400 m. Already at base camp we had decided where to set up Camp 2.

From the distance it appeared as if there was walkable terrain between the first and second pillar. But the appearance had deceived us — the terrain up there was 60° steep and the rocks were covered only slightly with snow. The plan was to check out the area behind the pillar. When Thomas wanted to make stand after only 30 m, I yelled: 'Move on for another 60 m, so we can save time'. 'I can't' he replied in his dry saxon accent which sometimes was as difficult to understand as was Denis' French. Surprised, we jummared to where Thomas was. When we reached his stand we could hardly believe what we saw: In front of us lay an about 120 m deep and 100 m wide canyon! Fortunately we found a small space for our night camp only 50 m farther — to describe it as luxurious would be a huge exaggeration but the beautiful view from there made up for the bad sleep.

At 11 a.m. of the following day the first sunrays touched the pillar exactly where we had planned our climbing route. The strong winds, mostly in the mornings, turned climbing in the shade into an ordeal. But we had no choice if we wanted to go on with our goal of this first ascent.

Thalay Sagar, close up of the north face.

34. Thalay Sagar, close up of the north face. (Stephen Siegrist)

We expected some cracks but couldn't see a single one on the 50 m wide front side of the pillar. 'The Purgatory Pillar' though, was covered up with frost. Our speed was about that of handicapped snails — not very safe climbing on plates and polished rocks made advancing in a faster pace impossible. Because of the monsoon season it snowed almost every afternoon resulting in climbing days where we advanced just about 30 m. Fortunately we did not miss the right moment to exit the wall before the great snowfall from 21 — 23 September. Thanks to text messages transmitted via satellite from Meteo Suisse, we knew that a lot of snow would fall — the meteorologists had truly done a great job during our whole trip!

Now Thalay Sagar proved its name right: In Hindi Thalay Sagar means something like: 'Churner of the Ocean' or 'Battle of Devil and God' (Sagar means ocean). Wet snow fell onto base camp and the pressure of the snow made 4 of 6 tents crash down. The thought of how much snow there would be higher up on the mountain minimized our motivation. When the sky cleared up for a moment we saw a huge crack in a snow slab crossing the whole 'wall of complaint' — another discovery which did not exactly improve our mood. We let the snow consolidate for two more days before we made our first attempt on the wall.

Fortunately there was no more snowfall on 26 September and so we managed to climb the last metre of the 'Golden Pillar'. The weather was predicted to be quite good but with a lot of wind. Nevertheless — we went for it! At 4 a.m. the alarm clock rang. The chilly morning temperatures made a fast advance impossible. At 9 a.m. we arrived at the original route, which meets the ridge from the southwest side. The key position of the original route lay ahead of us: The infamous, brittle 'Black Band' which crosses so many mountains in the Garhwal Himalaya. Easily we mastered the 150 m high 'Head Wall'. The gravel on the ridge of this part of the wall was still frozen and stuck together as the sun hadn't reached this part of the wall yet. Finally, after the last metres over the snow we reached the summit of Thalay Sagar! We could hardly believe that only three days ago we had been on our way to ABC, where, from up here, we now saw only the tent tips reaching out of the snow.

Because of the fantastic weather we could spend more than an hour on the summit. The wind did not blow as hard as predicted, otherwise it probably would have blown us back to Camp 2.

North face of Thalay Sagar from Kedar glacier.

23. North face of Thalay Sagar from Kedar glacier. (Stephen Siegrist)

Thalay Sagar north face.

24-25. Thalay Sagar north face. (Stephen Siegrist)

Thalay Sagar north face.

This was a full moon night — an event, which is always celebrated by the Hindus in many beautiful ceremonies. Although none of us was very religious, this was a very special day for us as well because we always dreamed of standing on the summit on a full moon day!

The first attempt on this line of climb was tried by a Spanish expedition in 1987 (O. Cadiach-J.Camprubi and X-Perez-Gil). They were not successful — maybe because they chose another route on the first pillar. Since then it has been quiet in this part of Thalay Sagar. It was time to climb this relatively safe line: It was time to harvest and so we named the route 'Harvest-Moon'.

Meanwhile Rob had ascended to Camp 2 over the 'Wave' — a pillar, which resembles a gigantic wave — to film a few sequences.

Thanks to the great crew and to our liaison officer, our material, including fix ropes were back in base camp already. Back in Delhi, we had to smile when our agent told us that the Delhi News had published a small article about our first ascent. We never found out who gave them the information or what exactly had been written on our ascent of the northeast face of Thalay Sager — the first successful ascent over this route ever.


The 4 member Mammut team climbers Stephan Siegrist, Denis Burdet, Thomas Senf and Ralph Weber experienced a rather special first ascent of the northeast ridge of Thalay Sagar. They named the route as 'Harvest Moon'.


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