Where Has the Snow Gone !
An expedition to Chong Kumdan
'Saser La in no more a problem for us to cross Sir, there is not much snow and the trail is over mud and rocks.' Angchuck, our horseman assured us. In the past several decades, Saser la, at 5775 m, had stopped many a climber, tekker, annyman, trader, and caravans. The route across from Sasoma in Nubra valley to Saser Brangza and further to the Karakoram pass had been used extensively by traders from Yarkand and later by the Indian army. Many times, due to the high level of snow on the pass, people and horses would die and the trail was referred to as the notorious 'Skeleton trail'.
Our caravan of 50 horses, 11 member (including our liaison officer), 19 support staff and 7 horsemen wound our way over the Saser la with ease towards our objective, Chong Kumdan II (7004 m), located at the head of the Chong Kumdan glacier.
Chong Kumdan II (CKII) is one of the few 7000 m peaks in the Indian Himalaya that has remained unclimbed, mainly due to its inaccessibility and remoteness. This itself, was what attracted us to attempt the peak. We would get an opportunity to trek through a vast section of East Karakoram which was seldom visited by climbers or trekkers. The Chong Kumdan group had been explored and most peaks on the glacier and its subsidiaries were climbed by an Indian - British team led by Harish Kapadia and Dave Wilkinson in 1991.
We had selected the same approach route to our peak considering the convenience of horses reaching base camp with loads. Harish's team had reached their base camp in seven days from Leh!
Landing at nearly 4000 m on the Ladakli plateau required us to spend a few days acclimatising. We visited the various authorities too. Crossing over to the Nubra valley we spent a night in the valley before starting our trek from Sasoma. The first day's trek goes up the historic Tulum Puti la on the narrow trail build by Ali Hussain in 1646. One admires his architectural skill and knowledge as one gains height over the rocky cliffs towards the pass, as tthe dramatic path winds its way up 32 bends. We lost tack of the bends we had passed till suddenly the path seemed to disappear as a new road is being built which will destroy the ancient route.
A road to the Saser la!, I could not believe this! Its purpose? To ease supply to the various army posts near the border. And they were destroying the historic trail up the Tulum Puti la and beyond. A small price to pay for development would be the argument I suppose.
We reached the new road under construction in a state of shock only to receive a nasty surprise. Two trucks of the Indian army were waiting for us on the new road. The officer with the truck politely informed us that we would have to return to Sasoma since they had received a message from the Army Brigade calling us back! We were all bundled into the trucks. I spoke to the officer and tried to reason with him. We had all our clearance papers in order and we had complied with all the requirements, 'to the book'. We had met all concerned government and army officials including the Commanding Officer of the unit in operation. Unfortunately, the officer was not authorised to take any decision so we had to move down.
Peak Shahi Kangri, (6934 m) looking east from ABC. (Rajesh Gadgil)
As we reached the Sasoma camp, we stopped at the Army check post and I contacted various officers whom we had met earlier with our papers. There was utter confusion! Many phone calls later I was told that there had been a misunderstanding due to which they had called us back. Their local 'information source' had informed them that an 'American - Thai' expedition was camped at Sasoma and moving to Saser la. Since the Army records did not show any such expedition was expected in the area, they wanted to verify which team was moving up. Therefore, we had been asked to return. They assured us that we could now move up the next day. I wondered who amongst us looked like 'Thai' nationals.
Next morning, we moved up though some of us though, preferred to walk. The road went on for a long way up to the pass. We camped at Lama Kheti that night. The following morning we trekked along the road for some distance. A little ahead, bulldozers were working on the road. I felt sad at the destruction of the landscape and the thought of what would happen further at the glacier. That evening we camped at Skyangpoche and on the following day we reached the base of the Saser la at the 'Lake Camp'. It was then that I saw the impact of what our horseman had said to us. The glaciers coming down from the various valleys along our route were barren of any snow. Large gapping crevasse and moraine on all sides was what was seen of the glacier. Vineeta, had trekked along the same route in 1997 during her traverse of the Himalaya. She was shocked to see how large the lake had grown in the last ten years. The horsemen were busy that evening fixing horse-shoes in preparation of our route across Saser la over the exposed ice of the glacier.
East ridge of Chong Kumdan V (6520 m). Peak I in background. (Divyesh Muni)
The route over Saser la littered with cartons, plastics and rubbish left behind by the various groups that were using the trail across the pass. We crossed over to reach the army camp at Saser Brangza. I was struggling to find a word to describe the place. What would you call a filthy, garbage strewn camp in the midst of the most beautiful mountain ranges? Years of struggling with survival at the high altitude by the various units posted at the camp had resulted in the accumulation of all that made the camp a collection of garbage draped in white parachute cloth.
From Saser Brangza, we moved away from the main route to Karakoram Pass and followed the right bank of the Shyok river towards its junction with the Chong Kumdan valley. However, we had to cross two major glaciers before reaching the junction, the Aq Tash and the Thangaman glaciers. Previous accounts of expeditions and sketch maps indicated the route moved along the banks of the Shyok river till the junction. Harish Kapadia's team had crossed the tributaries of Shyok on horse back at this point and crossed back at its junction with the Chong Kumdan.
We could hardly believe the current situation. The Aq Tash glacier had moved down all the way to the Shyok river and it was no longer possible to move along the river. The ice walls of the glacier touched the water of the Shyok blocking off the path. And I thought glaciers were receding!
We now recceed a route across the Aq Tash glacier that we could cross along with our horses. The experience of our horsemen and Sherpas saved us. We prepared a route across the glacier for the horses. I was amazed to see the route hacked through the ice. The glacier stood bare of all snow. Huge gapping crevasse and moraine was what we saw of the glacier. It was like walking through a maze. We debated on the condition of the glacier. The top snow layer of the glacier had melted leaving bare the hard ice below. The ice too had melted substantially leaving huge crevasses open. The bottom layer of the glacier had melted due to the warmer temperatures and the glacier had slid down, virtually into the Shyok.
We camped on the right bank of the glacier for the night and moved across the Aq Tash glacier the next day. The route further along the slope of the valley was fairly simple till we came to the next hurdle, the Thangaman glacier. The situation was similar to the Aq Tash glacier. The glacier had slid down to the river and we had to find a route across the glacier for our horses. Our group split into teams exploring various alternatives. Chris Robertson and Nikunj Vora attempt to skirt the glacier from its snout. They moved below tottering ice towers at the snout, climbed on to the glacier at several places but were ultimately stopped a few hundred metres from the opposite bank. One team of horsemen and Sherpas finally located a route. We were hopeful that we were through with our problems.
But it was not to be. As we reached the left bank of the Thangaman glacer to its meeting point with the Shyok, we realised that we could not move any further with our horses. The Shyok was in spate and it was no longer possible to cross it, as Harish Kapadia's team had done in 1991. We were a month later in the year than Harish's team. The temperatures should have been cooler and the water in the river should have been even lower but this was a different situation. It was very warm and the water levels were very high. Rocky embankments blocked further movement along the true left of the river.
The horses were unloaded and we ferried loads across the rocky embankments for abut 250 m till we camped on the shores of the Shyok. We were still about 15 km from our base camp and would have to shift our loads on our backs.
Don, Chris Marlin and I left early next morning to locate a route further. After several hours walk along the right bank of the Shyok, we decided to camp at the junction of the Chong Kumdan glacier and the Shyok. I walked back to our 'River Camp' to give proper directions to rest of the group while Don and the rest moved further up the glacier to look at the route ahead. By evening we settled into camp with good news from Don, they had located a route into the South Chong Kumdan glacier which avoided movement on the broken glacier. The route brought us to a good camp site at the turn of the South Chong Kumdan glacier.
Rimo peaks from summit of Skyang (5770m). (Chris Robertson )
Mamostong Kangri (right) and Thangman I (6864 m). (Rajesh Gadgil)
Climbing SE ridge of Chong Kumdan I from Camp 2. Peaks Landay (6170 m, left) and Aq Tash (7016 m, centre background). (Chris Robertson )
Near the summit of Chong Kumdan I. (Chris Robertson )
Chong Kumdan I, route of ascent.(Divyesh Muni)
On the southeast ridge, it meets east ridge on top of the cornice seen behind. (Chris Robertson)
The sight of the glacier was a greater shock to us than the two previous glaciers. A maze of crevasse and tottering seracs ... This was even worst than the notorious Khumbu icefall!. Our proposed base camp was still across the glacier on its true left!
Considering the time we had spent in reaching this camp site and the further route ahead, we decided to pitch base camp at this site itself and proceed further along the Chong Kumdan glacier.
We hoped our troubles with the glacier would now end. The maps indicated a gently rising South Chong Kumdan glacier all the way to the base of our peak. Since there were no major undulations in the terrain, we expected an easy terrain ahead on which we could walk up without much difficulty. Again, the glacier had something different in store for us.
Don Goodman Juan Esteban and I went for a recce to our proposed ABC location. We could not even reach the site, as the glacier was so broken, that, to travel a kilometer along the glacier, we had to zig-zag nearly 3 km on the glacier due to the numerous crevasses. Considering the risks involved and the time left with us, we had to take a decision not to attempt Chong Kumdan II. As we made our way back to the camp, we discussed Plan B. We decided to shift our focus to climb the east ridge of Chong Kumdan I (7071 m) The peak had been climbed by two British climbers by the west ridge in 1991. The east ridge route would be a challenging objective for us, yet we had a safer approach to the base of the mountain which did not require extensive movement on glaciers.
We therefore crossed the South Chong Kumdan glacier and established our ABC on its left bank at the same location where Harish Kapadia's team had established their base camp. And to think that the route in 1991 was easy enough for horses to have reached the campsite!
On 11 August, as part of our acclimatisation, we climbed peak Skyang (5770 m). It gave us spectacular views of the entire region. Every glacier we saw was in the same stage of degradation and chaos. One wondered whether the region had seen any snowfall at all or did all the winter snow melt away so fast.
We established our Camp 1 at 5950 m on the left bank of the Chogam 1 glacier. Don Goodman, Juan Esteban, Chris Robertson occupied camp on 12 August and started fixing the route on the ice face leading to the southeast ridge of Chong Kumdan I (CKI). Marlin Geist, Shripad Sapkal, and the Sherpas Neema and Ming Temba fixed the route further while Vineeta, Nikunj and I climbed up high on the col of Chong Kumdan V peak. From about 6200 m, it gave us a good view of the higher reaches of our proposed route on CKI.
We were now set to make our attempt on CKI. In the meantime, unknown to us a tragedy was unfolding at an the Saser Brangza army camp. One of support staff, Anand Ram, who was on his way back due to an illness suddenly took serious turn and passed away. Although he was treated by a medical officer at the army camp and his health was stable for four days at the camp, he succumbed to high altitude sickness on 10 August unknown to us or to our logestics support company. Our entire expedition was in gloom over the news received by us on 15 August.
We were still under the shock of the news when another drama started unfolding.
Our Sherpa Sirdar, Ang Tashi, complained of ill health. Despite taking rest, his condition did not improve and he moved down to ABC accompanied by members of the team and our laison officer. When rest, artificial oxygen and medication did not help at the ABC, we immediately started evacuation procedures. We are very grateful to the Indian Air Force, who acted immediately on our request and within hours we had a helicopter to pick up Ang Tashi from our ABC. He was admitted under intensive care at the Hunder army hospital where he underwent treatment for several days before he was discharged.
Relieved that Ang Tashi was under the best medical care, we proceeded on our attempt to climb CKI. On 19 August four members and three Sherpas climbed to the proposed site of Camp 2 at 6450 m. The only available site was on the southeast ridge of the peak which was a hard ice slope with a thin layer of snow on it. It took us 4 exhausting hours of hacking at the rock hard ice to cut 3 ledges for our tents.
On 20 August, we left camp at 6 a.m. and moved quickly up the fixed lines on the southeast ridge. This took us past a cornice on the southwest ridge to where it intersected the east ridge of Chong Kumdan I. From here on, the route seemed easy and our summit climbing team of Don Goodman, Chris Robertson, Marlin Geist, myself; and Sherpas Neema Doije, Ming Temba and Pemba Norbu stopped at 8 a.m. to rope for climbing on the final east ridge 450 m below the summit. We were sure we would be on the summit within a couple of hours.
About 300 m below the summit, we ran into crusty snow and loose granular snow over hard ice. First, it was just shin deep. After going only one rope length, we were plunging in up to our knees and hips. Instead of climbing 200 to 300 m elevation per hour, we were reduced to a crawl. Further, we were forced to set up fixed lines because of the hard ice underlying potentially unstable snow.
Finally, at 4 p.m. we went up the last rope and reached the summit. We enjoyed incredible views in all directions though with a cloud layer covering some of the high peaks. With our new route from the Chogam 1 glacier up the southwest and east ridges, we completed the second ascent of Chong Kumdan I.
The Saser la was easier to cross, but I would rather have more snow on the glaciers and mountains!
Members: Our team consisted of of five American climbers, five Indian climbers. Americans: Don Goodman (co-leader), Natala Goodman, Chris Robertson, Marlin Giest, Juan Estaban Lira.
Indians: Divyesh Muni (co-leader), Rajesh Gadgil, Shripad Sapkal, Nikunj Vora, Vineeta Muni and Sqn. Ldr. G. Pawan Kumar (LO)
The second ascent of Chong Kumdan I (7071 m) in the East Karakoram, by an Indian-American team on 20 August 2007. They climbed a new route, southwest ridge to east ridge to the summit.
Sponsored by : The Himalayan Club.
See HJ vol. 48, p. 104. Refer to sketch maps and photographs with the article for comparison of terrain.
A fund has been established by the Himalayan Club to support the family of Anand Ram.
Ang Tashi had climbed high on several expeditions and was fit. He had climbed Everest, Saser Kangri, Kamet and host of other high peaks. His was a strange case but it only illustrates how high altitude illness can strike a person however experienced and fit he may be.