First Ascent of Konchuk - Tsoo
Lt. Cdr. Amit Pande
Do not follow where the path may lead,
Go instead where there is no path - and leave a trail
Ralf Waldo Emerson
Having conclusively proved our mountaineering credentials after our successful ascent of Everest from the north and thus becoming the first Navy in the world to do so we now had to do something, which not many people had attempted earlier.
So when I was tasked to plan and lead an expedition immediately after Everest I had no doubt in my mind that the peak had to be technically challenging and preferably unclimbed. I had a few in my mind but finally homed on to a virgin peak, Konchuk - Tsoo, (6560 m) in the Pangong range of east Ladakh. I had been to this area earlier whilst conducting our pre- Everest winter training and had actually thought of it as a formidable mountaineering challenge.
The modest height of the peak is more than adequately compensated by perpendicular gradients, overhangs, cornices, mixed snow / ice / rock climbs and all objective hazards imaginable. Sitting in the IMF (Indian Mountaineering Foundation) library I tried to go through all available records of the area, but there was none which spoke of this peak or any previous attempts. My search on the Internet proved futile.
Our nine-member team departed Delhi on 17 September 2004, and travelled to the road head at Parma in east Ladakh via Leh and Tangtse. We met our HAPS (high altitude porters) and the kitchen staff at Leh who had reached a couple of days earlier. The road from Leh winded across the cold Ladakhi desert for around 200 kms and over Chang la (5425 m), the third highest motorable pass in the world to reach Parma. After a day's stopover at Tangtse we headed towards our road head near Parma about 45 km ahead. We established base camp (BC) on 24 September at an altitude of 4475 m; not very far from the road head. Winter sets in early in Ladakh and the temperatures were already below freezing point when we reached BC. The next few days were spent in load sorting and working
out of rations and technical equipment. Unlike other mountains there was no data available for the peak. Detailed recce was hence of paramount importance and I spent the next few days studying the face of the mountain and deciding as to which face should be attempted. We commenced our load ferrying to advance base camp (ABC) on 26 September. The route to ABC snaked along a dry nala (Niyunguk Lungpa in Ladakhi) over extremely loose rubble of scree and shale. Visual distances in mountains can be deceptive and some of our HAPs learnt their lesson that day. Looking at the area of the ABC they assumed (despite my advice to the contrary) that it was not more than couple of hours from the BC and hence did not even take water with them. They were in for a bitter surprise as reaching ABC alone took them more than seven hours.
After few days of hectic load ferrying six members shifted to ABC at 5582 m. The place where we camped was not to my satisfaction as it was situated in a bowl under a small glacier, invisible; till the time you actually stepped into it. Also it was slightly away from our intended route, but we did not have a choice as it was the only place where we could find water. The water points if we could call them this , had already frozen and we had to melt hard ice for water.
The route beyond ABC continued along the true left bank of a medium sized glacier, which is about 1/2 km wide, 4 kms long and surrounded by high peaks on all sides. There were continuous rock falls en route and members had to take all precautions to avoid accidental hits. We came across a number of hidden crevasses en route, but they were not very big and one could manage to jump across. After traversing for about an hour and a half during our initial recces we had come across an ice wall to our right, which we thought to be the best possible way up. The gradient of the wall however to our discomfiture was almost 70 degrees and higher with a continuous climb of 750 m. The only obstruction on top was a swarm of precariously hanging cornices. The only other possible route would have led us from under a huge icefall and serac ramp; every inch of which looked on the verge of collapse at any moment. 'Beggars can't be choosers'. Not feeling comfortable with traversing under the serac ramp I decided in favour of the former. We established our C1 at 5685 m on the glacier next to the ice wall. The glacier in its lower reaches was quite jagged and we had to break the sharp ice flutings in order to pitch our tents. My idea of setting the camp at a location which was neither far from
the ABC nor substantially higher was to ensure saving of time. It further served as our dump for all technical equipment, ropes and instant rations.
The peak was attempted from the Northwest face. We started our route opening with Bhanoo and I on the lead. The route from C1 went straight up the face of the wall with the quality of ice being the worst I had come across in my entire climbing career. It seemed to be a millennium old; black and blue in colour; like absolute granite, affording no purchase to either the crampons or the ice axe. We came across a small hidden crevasse (which looked like a bergchrund) and I broke it open to make it more conspicuous.
An alpine ascent though faster and more convenient had to be ruled out as we had a bigger team, all of who were required to be given adequate opportunity. Climbing in our armed forces is not merely for the thrill of climbing but a part of regular military training as well.
We fixed five ropes on our first day of route opening. The gradient was around 70 degrees, which only kept on getting steeper with height. We dumped our loads at the end of the ropes and hurried back as it was getting dark. We returned early the next day and continued on our way up. But we could hardly make any progress as our HAPs, who had most of our ropes, were finding it difficult negotiating the stiff climb. They could make it to the end only by afternoon after which there was hardly any time left to carry on further. On the third day Bhanoo, Vikas and I left ABC at 0400 hrs and carried more than our usual share of load including spare ropes, ice screws, carabiners and other technical equipment. We were already high up on the slopes when the golden rays of the sun lit up the distant peaks. Unfortunately we could also see dark clouds gathering at a distance, advancing menacingly towards us.
The slope was very hard ice with gradient up to 80 degrees but we made good progress. However, after crossing a small crevasse I was surprised to find myself knee-deep in extremely soft snow. The place seemed to be an extended longitudinal depression where fresh snowfall had accumulated. My rope meanwhile had come to an end and I didn't have any snow stakes for making an anchor. I did not find the idea of slightly descending the steep gradient of the icy slope and using an ice screw very palatable. I could not think of any option other than using one of my ice axes instead. However the technical ice axe being too small did
not prove effective in the soft and deep snow. I had to loosen it from my harness, thump it hard with my shoes, and thereafter stand on it to ensure that it didn't come out when Bhanoo jummared up. I was precariously hanging on the slope, hoping that the rope did not get any sudden jerk, which would simply dislodge the ice axe taking me with it. Meanwhile the weather had deteriorated considerably and it had started snowing heavily. The only motivating factor amidst deteriorating weather was that because of the extreme gradient there was little threat of avalanches. Although we could hear them all around us we were comparatively safe. We replaced the ice axe with a snow stake and carried on further fixing yet another pitch.
The gust of strong winds however soon turned into a gale and visibility turned zero with absolute white - out conditions. Snowflakes hit our faces like sharpnel of a hand grenade. I had received several cuts on my face, which I saw only after returning to the camp. Our glasses had to be wiped every five seconds as heavy snow continued to accumulate over them. It was time to return.
Hell broke loose over the next four days. I now realised that we were indeed fortunate to have camped in a bowl for we would have surely been blown away in the hurricane that stormed the area. We lost contact with the BC. Morning routines proved to be an ordeal and getting up for meals, an excruciatingly painful exercise. However we did try to catch up on our sleep that we had been missing for long.
I wriggled out of my sleeping bag at 5.30 in the morning of 8 October to go around the corner, and as I made my way out of the tent; attired in a manner that would have put an astronaut to shame, I could hardly believe my eyes. The sky was all red and golden with distant peaks lit up like small lamps. My field of vision was restricted from the camp, so I went further up and as I went higher, my spirits soared. Not a speck of clouds, anywhere.
It was now or never. It was a god - sent opportunity amidst fast approaching winters. I hurried back, woke up everybody and asked to commence preparations. We spent that day packing things for the final attempt. Most of us dried our shoes and clothing in the sun and slept off early.
It was 9 October. Bhanoo and I left ABC at 1.30 in the morning. The remaining four would follow a couple of hours later. Having had a very welcome cup of tea at C1 we started jummaring up on the ice wall but
realised that the ropes lay buried deep in the snow. We had to use ice axes and all our strength to pull them out at every step, but still made good progress. I knew that providence had afforded us this last chance and we would not let it go. Though tired by the time we reached the last rope we carried on with our further opening of route. By now we could also see small dots down on the mountain slopes - our colleagues on their way up. I had initially intended to head for a small opening in the cornices but a closer look revealed their impending and unannounced collapse. The cornices moreover appeared to be three stories high and certainly not worth the risk.
'Summit is optional; Getting down is mandatory' said Ed Viestures.
I decided to traverse further to the left and thereafter head straight up for the saddle where I would have had to break open a smaller cornice in order to hoist myself on to the saddle. Whilst traversing I came across yet another patch of rock hard ice almost 75 degrees in gradient. Asking Bhanoo to be more careful on the belay, exercising utmost caution, using all my energy and technique and whatever balance was left in me, I had climbed around 10 m when I realised having landed myself in a most hopeless predicament. The pick of my ice axe was not biting into the blue ice above me. The fillers of my crampons were penetrating less than half of their designed capacity. The metal with whatever force used, continued to slip on the thick glass that I was on. To make matters worse there was a long hump right under my belly and thighs pushing my hips outwards. It was turning out to be long drawn out battle. The elements were at war, water and metal, and both seemed like conducting their endurance trials on me. My calves and arms had begun to ache and I would not have been able to sustain myself in that position for long.
I looked down at the glacier more than half a km right under me. Though I did want to go down at that moment, it was surely not in the manner that this mountain wanted me to. A sturdy blow of my ice axe a foot above me held on this time. Mustering all my strength I widened my legs and hit the ice at the place where I thought it to be a little softer. It was a perfect landing. A few more and I was able to extricate myself out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Bhanoo meanwhile had not perceived my struggle and with a loud Kya kar rahe ho, Sir ( What are you doing ?) egged me to carry on. Bhanoo did a fine fixing on some pitches before handing over to me again.
The climb thereafter though steep was reasonable on a mixed snow / ice surface. I broke open the cornice near the saddle and craned my neck forward to see the other side only to witness a flattish plane about 200 m in length. We still could not see the summit, which lay to our right. Trudging onwards we had to break open yet another cornice when a loud applause from Bhanoo - Sir, Yahi hai (This is it) - made me realise that we were actually on top.
It was 3.30 in the afternoon. Others followed soon and we had a magnificent view of the Pangong lake with Tibet in the background. Having savoured the view around us for a while we hurried back as it would soon get dark and we had quite a distance to traverse to reach C1. It was 8.30 in the night when we reached C1 after a gruelling and nonstop climb of almost 17 hours. Two of our HAPs were there to greet us with steaming hot cups of well-deserved tea. We had not had anything to eat since 1.30 in the morning and were terribly hungry. We were at ABC by 10 p.m. feasting on an extremely well prepared dinner.
After resting for a day Vikas and Kanna went back to recover our ropes and other equipment from the mountain slopes while the others went down to the BC. Lt Deshmukh (our BC manager) had been waiting for us for a very long time and we reached back to a resounding welcome by him. The next few days were spent in getting our equipment and tents back from C1 and ABC. We left BC on 15 October and in accordance with strict mountaineering ethics ensured that there was nothing left that stood witness to our month long presence in the area. We had already cleared garbage including all bio-degradable / non degradable items from our higher camps.
'When you leave, leave nothing but your footsteps', said somebody.
We were also lucky to see a lot of rare birds like the 'Black Necked Cranes' and the 'Brahminy Ducks' in the marshes near BC. We enjoyed the splendid hospitality of the Brigade staff at Tangtse prior to departing for Leh. Though held up in Leh because of the non availability of the IAF courier in view of inclement weather we reached Delhi via Chandigarh on 20 October 2004.
The first ascent of Konchuk Tsoo, (6560 m) in the Pangong range. The team from the Indian Navy reached the summit on 9 October 2004.