Colonel Ashok Abbey
The Mountain of Thousand Devils
In the remote upper regions of Ladakh, in the Great Karakoram, lies the rugged Rimo Muztagh. With the dominating Siachen Muztagh to its north-west and the towering Saser Muztagh to its south, the area is a complex maze of jagged peaks and broken glaciers. It was through the complex folds of this rugged land that the all important 'lifeline' of the region, connecting central Asia to Ladakh once passed. This was the Central Asian trade route, which negotiated dangerous high passes, connected inaccessible valleys, crossed fast flowing rivers through gorges, all in a forbidding terrain at extreme altitudes. Yet the 'never say die' spirit of these hardy tradesmen and their sturdy animals, who plied regularly in subzero conditions on this extremely hazardous route prevailed, despite the heavy toll that the terrain took on them and their animals. Their constant movement brought life to this otherwise desolate region.
Mamostong Kangri, reigning at a majestic altitude of 7516 m, is the highest mountain of the Rimo Mustagh. The Mamostong massif, which is approximately, 22 km xl4 km comprises of Mamostong Kangri I (7516 m) and Mamostong Kangri II (7025 m), with a galaxy of other subsidiary peaks. It is bounded by the Shyok river to the west, the Saser la to the south, the Chong Kumdan glacier to the north and the Mamostong and the Terong glaciers to the southwest and the west. The mountain stands at the junction of the Mamostong, Thangaman, Chong Kumdan and the South Terong glaciers and rises in one single mass in a northeast to southwestern aligmnent.
Dominating this central Asian trade route as it left the floor of the Nubra valley, till it crossed the mighty Saser la and well beyond the upper Shyok valley, stood a mountain, engulfed in perpetual fog and mist. Though not seen directly from the regular trade route, its omnipresence instilled a sense of fear and caution as the traders entered its domain. They named this mountain. Mamostong Kangri.
The mountain was named by Yarkandi traders. In the Turki dialect, Mamo means fog and Stong thousand. A legend associated with the naming of the mountain, is as fascinating as the mountain itself. It is said that a group of traders looking for an alternate route to the Saser la, crossed over from a col at the head of the valley, into the Thangaman glacier. They were never seen again, as the whole party perished in the shadow of the mountain. The mountain, which was perpetually engulfed in fog and mist, was thus named 'Mamostong' and no one ever ventured into the valley again. The glacier was named Thangaman which means the healing flat medicinal glacier.
Mamostong Kangri has five prominent ridges. The northwest ridge, which is a 3-km long sharp ridge line, rises from the Chong Kumdan glacier. The east ridge of the mountain rises from the Thangaman glacier and the Shyok riverbed. It continues for 5 km up to Pt 6864 m, before splitting into two subsidiary ridges. The north ridge, which towers above the Chong Kumdan glacier, further subdivides into two, with the second ridge dropping into the Thangaman glacier. Between both, they engulf two unnamed glaciers, which join Thangaman from the north. The south ridge of Mamostong rises steeply for 2 km, before dropping into the Thangaman glacier.
The southwest ridge, emanates from the flat plateau to the west of the summit pyramid of Mamostong Kangri. This long ridge at the base of which is the 5885 m high Mamostong Col or the Hope Col, has a number of glaciers emanating to the south, which drop into the Mamostong glacier and the Saser Tokpo (emanating from the Saser la). To the north of this ridge is the Thangaman glacier. Aq Tash (7016 m), a fascinating monolith lies 9 km south-east on this ridge. From Aq Tash two more ridges emanate. The northeast ridge peters into the Shyok bed, while the south and south-east ridge dominate the skyline over the Saser la valley. Nestled between the two ridges lines, lies the Aq Tash glacier.
The west ridge takes off from Mamostong Kangri II and continues to Pt 6230 m and Pt 6295 m. To the South of this ridge lies the Mamostong glacier, while to the north are the south Terong glaciers. Both glacier systems are connected over a series of cols and gaps. The ridge finally peters out above the South Warshi glacier. The north face, the south-east face and the south-west face of the mountain are big walls, giving Mamostong a conical shape.
Mamostong Kangri was first explored by Dr Arthur Neve and D. G. Oliver in 1908. The mountain system was surveyed in 1913-14 by Sir Filippo de Filippi's expedition. They also surveyed the Rimo glacier system. They even published, what was probably one of the first maps of the area. The mountain remained in hibernation for a long time after this. In fact it continued to remain so remote that even until 1984 there were no photographs of it. The mountain was first climbed in 1984 by an Indo-Japanese expedition that was led by Colonel Balwant Sandhu and Yoshio Ogata.
From Sasoma they moved along the Tulum Puti Tokpo and onto the Mamostong glacier. They then crossed over to the Thangaman glacier from the Mamostong or the Hope Col (5885 m) and climbed the mountain from the east ridge.
In 1988, crack soldiers of the Indian Army's Ladakh Scouts led by Maj. A. M. Sethi approached the mountain from the Thangaman glacier, a new approach, and climbed it from the east ridge . In 1989, an expedition of the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army (led by Maj. M. P. Yadav), repeated the route of the first ascent and also climbed peaks 6235 m and 6190 m.
In 1990, a Border Security Force Expedition led by S. C. Negi, climbed the mountain from the east ridge and also Pt 6448 m.
In 1992, a Pre-Everest all women's expedition led by Bachendri Pal reportedly attempted and climbed the mountain. In July 1992, an Indo-Austrian expedition led by N. Ravi Kumar and Gunther Steinmeir, approaching the mountain from the Mamostong glacier, made the first ascent of Mamostong Kangri II.
An Indo-French expedition (Chewang Motup Goba and Paulo Grobel) enjoying excellent weather conditions, repeated the route of the first ascent and climbed the mountain on 20 and 21 August, 2007.
Our team was the next in line to attempt this legendary mountain. It was on 2 September 2007, late by any standards of climbing in the Karakoram that our team of strong soldier mountaineers of the Indian Army, commenced trudging up the near 600 m slab from Sasoma, in the Nubra bed. This historic track, which had been pioneered by the Yarkandi engineer, Ali Hussein in the 19th century on the orders of the Sultan of Yarkand, to make the descent of the pilgrims en route to Nubra and then Mecca, more comfortable, is still mercifully intact! The team ascended 600 m, from the riverbed, taking 36 U turns, and finally reached the Tulum Puti la (3750 m). Then we crossed the Dosham, a natural stone bridge (Do means stone and Sham bridge) over the terrifying Tulum Puti Tokpo gorge, to reach Lama Kheti. We were finally travelling on the 'skeleton trail' of the historic Central Asian trade route. As we moved up the valley, the stupendous south-west face of Aq Tash dominated the horizon. It was first climbed in 1993 by an Indo-Japanese expedition led by Hukum Singh and Minoru Nagoshi.6
The team moved swiftly along the Tulum Puti Tokpo and Saser Tokpo and after due acclimatisation en route, crossed the 5385 m high Saser la, which was snow bound, before descending into the Shyok valley. Ascents of Pt 6010 m, which is 3 km south east of the Saser la and Pt 6335 m, which is 4 km south of the pass, were made in 1991 by an Indo-German expedition (Colonel I. S. Bhatia).7
After reaching the Saser la, the team kept to the west of the river and finally after crossing the Aq Tash glacier, reached the head of the 18-km long Thangaman glacier.
Base camp was established on 1 September, at 4920 m by the advance party led by Subedar Rajendra Singh. The site overlooked the spectacular ice pinnacles of the Thangaman glacier. Base camp was finally occupied on 11 September. A helipad was also prepared, adjoining base camp, for any emergency landing or casualty evacuation. The old Kichik Kumdan dam site was somewhat discernable after all these years.
From base camp, the team descended and climbed up again to gain access to the Thangaman glacier. After negotiating the maze of pinnacles of this fascinating glacier, the team moved on the bleak medial moraine of the glacier to establish Camp I, at the junction of the second unnamed glacier with Thangaman. Camp 1 (5200 m), was established on 10 September and occupied on 13 September.
Camp 2 was established at 6000 m on 14 September and occupied on 15 September. The route from Camp 1 to Camp 2 was along the northern lateral moraine of the Thangaman glacier. Short of Pt 6205 m, the team moved north into a subsidiary glacier, south of Thangman (6864 m). After crossing the heavily crevassed snowfield, the team established Camp 2 in the upper snowfield. Spectacular views of the heavily avalanche prone north face of Aq Tash, were seen from the Thangaman glacier. The team also witnessed some massive cornice break offs and terrifying ice avalanches, which almost engulfed the entire glacier below.
From Camp 2, the team crossed the col between Pt 6205 m and Pt 6190 m, to reach the upper snowfield of the Thangaman glacier. From here, Hope Col or the Mamostong Col, which separates the Thangaman glacier from the Mamostong glacier, was clearly visible as was the entire base of Mamostong Kangri. After crossing the crevasse ridden snowfield, the team negotiated a series of ice walls to gain the col between the east ridge of Mamostong Kangri and Pt 6864 m. Camp 3 (6600 m) was finally established on 16 September and occupied by the first summit team the following day. As per the original plan, team one under Captain Aukta was to make the first attempt, followed by team two under Colonel Ashok Abbey.
Accordingly, on 17 September, the summit team under Captain Aukta, Subedar Rajendra Singh and 10 members occupied Camp 3, while five members under Company Leader Jigmey Namgyal moved up to stock Camp 3 for the summit bid. At 0920 hours, a team comprising of Subedar Rajendra Singh, Honorary Captain C Angchok, Assistant Leader Sonam Gurmey, Trainee Kunchok Tenpa, Rifleman Sonam Targais, Trainee Tashi Puntsok and Trainee Rigden, moved up to work on the route, ahead of Camp 3.
On 18 September, a team of eight climbers comprising of Subedar Rajendra Singh, Assistant Leader Sonam Gurmey, Assistant Leader Sonma Gompo, Assistant Section Leader Kunchok Tenpa, Trainee Tashi Puntsok, Trainee Tenzin Rigden, Rifleman Sonam Tsering, Havaldar Marup Doijai commenced their climb in two groups of four each, at 0315 hours and 0400 hours respectively.
The east ridge of Mamostong Kangri, is a complicated summit ridge broken with numerous serac barriers and ice walls. To the north, the mountain plunges into an abyss towards the Chong Kumdan glacier. From Camp 3, the team traversed the crevasse ridden snowfield cautiously, fixing two ropes. They then climbed on to negotiate the serac barrier, comprising big ice walls. Seven ropes were used to negotiate this obstacle, before finally reaching the crevasse filled area. En route, they could see the vast expanse of the great Depsang plains and the Kunlun mountains. From the first crevasse, they treaded with caution and reached the second crevasse, on the summit ridge. After negotiating that, they reached the top of the second bump, at approximately 7360 m at 1500 hours, for which they fixed another six ropes. As it was late in the day and the wind was picking up, the expedition leader called off the attempt, just 155 m short of the summit. The team returned to the summit camp exhausted, the last member reached camp at 1800 hours. The team had been on their feet for nearly 15 hours.
After resting and recouping, on 19 September, the expedition leader decided to make another summit attempt on 20 September. It was imperative to make a summit attempt on 20 September, as the weather seemed to be turning worse. As per the original plan, the second attempt was to be made by the second team led by Colonel Ashok Abbey and Company Leader Jigmey Namgyal, but given the paucity of time, it was now important to make an attempt as soon as possible. Therefore the leader decided to recycle some members of the first team. Accordingly, Trainee Tenzin Lektso and Havaldar Samrup Doijee from the second team now joined the summit team. Company Leader Jigmey Namgyal and Assistant Leader Sonam Gompo, from Camp 3 would support the attempt.
The summit team left Camp 3, at 0200 hours on 20 September. Moving rapidly on the previously fixed ropes, they made good progress and had traversed the snowfield by 0330 hours. They reached the area of first crevasse at 0530 hours and the second at 0700 hours. From the second crevasse, as they reached Bump II, clouds started engulfing the massif and visibility decreased. The summit team, however, continued their steady progress in the soft snow towards the summit. Another three ropes were fixed on the final ridge. Finally at 0935 hours on 20 September, the summit ridge eased and the team stood on the summit of Mamostong Kangri. For Honorary Captain Angchuck it was the second time, as he had climbed the mountain in 1988. He was amazed to see the changes in the mountain, especially the snow conditions. The wind had picked up by now and clouds engulfed the massif. It was in these perilous conditions, using the safety of fixed ropes that the team finally descended safely to Camp 3. Another eight ropes including a ladder had been fixed en route to the summit, making it a total of 28 fixed ropes. The team had taken 7 hours and 35 minutes to reach the summit from the Camp 3.
The summit party reached Camp 3 at 1300 hours, under near flat light conditions. The support team in the meanwhile had wound up the camp. After a brief rest, the summit team left Camp 3 at 1400 hours and reached Camp 2 at 1630 hours. By now the weather was very bad.
Despite the inclement weather and very poor visibility conditions, Camp 2 was cleared on 21 September after a Herculean effort. Camp 1 was also partially wound up that day and the entire team finally returned to base camp, on 22 September. The team had reached just in time, as there was heavy snowfall in the region, from 21 to 24 September and we recorded two inches of fresh snowfall at base camp.
An integral aspect of this expedition was its resolve to leave the mountain clean. The team ensured that no non-biodegradable waste, generated by the expedition was left on the mountain. The leader formulated a plan, by which all returning members and porters, (who came up to Camp 2) and subsequently ponies were used to bring down the non-bio-degradable waste from high camps and above to base camp and then on to the road head at Sasoma.
Base camp at 4920 m with the fascinating ice-penitents of Thangman glacier behind. (Colonel Ashok Abbey)
Climbing between Camp 3 and the summit of Mamostong Kangri, with Chong Kumdan I behind. (Colonel Ashok Abbey)
The Chong Kumdan glacier with the Depsang plains behind. (Colonel Ashok Abbey)
The east face of Mamostong Kangri. (Colonel Ashok Abbey)
The Thangman glacier with north face of Aq Tash peak towering behind. (Colonel Ashok Abbey)
Sitting in the relative warmth of the kitchen at base camp, as I thought back on our climb, I realised how kind the 'Mountain of Thousand Devils' had been to us. It had taken us 14 days from the time we left base camp till we climbed the mountain and returned. But the expedition was far from over. The formidable Saser la still had to be crossed and September was almost over. I listened carefully to our Ladakhi Sirdar, who told me the fascinating story of Ling Kesar, a popular folk hero and his encounter with Balu khar. He pointed out that our base camp was directly under observation from the high ramparts of his fort (the big mountain fortress like feature towering above the Kichik Kumdan, to the east and the northeast) and that we had to be careful. Careful we were indeed, as we left the mesmerising upper Shyok valley and crossed the Saser la in early October, reaching the banks of the enchanting Nubra, safely on 4 October. Finally, I drove past the smart Gorkha sentry, next to the gate of a Gorkha battalion at Sasoma, after thanking their Commanding Officer for all the assistance rendered to my team. The sign on the exit gate read Phiri Bittola (Gorkhali for 'see you again'). As the mist of the mind tried to obliterate the hallowed image of the mountain, I wondered if I would ever see the Mountain of Thousand Devils again in this lifetime.
Dosam - Natural bridge of two rocks
Mamostong - Mountain of Thousand Devils
Mamo - Fog
Stong - Thousand
Kangri - Ice peak
Thangaman - Glacier of healing
Thang - Plain
Man - Medicine
Chong - Big
Kichik - Small
Kumdan - Dam
Polu - Temporary shelter
Shyok - River of death / sorrow
Brangsa - Place of temporary halt / camp
Saser La - Pass of golden earth
Rimo - Beautiful/painted lines
Aq Tash - White rock
Shyanngpoche - Pleasure ground for donkeys
Tulum Puti la - Long narrow steep pass
Nubra - Western valley
Sasoma - New ground
Team: Colonel Ashok Abbey (leader). Major A K Shanna (MO), Captain Ainit Aukta, Subedar Rajendra Singh, Honorary Captain Chering Angchok, Deputy Leader Jigmey Namgyal, Naib Subedar Sonam Doijee, Havaldar Murup Doijai, Havaldar Cherring Samrup, Rifleman Sonam targais. Assistant Leader Sonam Gurmey, Trainee Kunchok Tenpa, Trainee Tenzin Rigden, Trainee Tenzin Lektso, Trainee Tashi Phuntsok
Ascent of Mamostong Kangri (7516 m) from the east ridge. Sponsored by Army Adventure Wing
- HJAl p. 93 and//CM, 38 p. 17
HJ 46 p. 70 and HCNL 32 p. 35
HJ46 p. 195 and HCNL 43 p. 32
HCNL 45 p.6
ZZ/50 p. 219 and HCNL 47 p. 25