‘What was that, again? Who named this peak? Are you sure? What kind of a mountain is that?’ These were the responses I got when I mentioned the name of the peak we planned to attempt. ‘Plateau Peak’, a contradiction is in the name itself.
A huge mass of a mountain, wearing a permanent ice cap.... The entire mountain, from all directions, but one, has massive hanging serracs guard the plateau on top of the mountain. It is part of the famous Saser Kangri group of peaks, rugged, beautiful and towering high in the Nubra valley. Despite several attempts from its western approach, the peak has remained unclimbed.
Having researched its history and geography, we were optimistic of finding a route on the mountain from its southern approach by the Sakang glacier.
The last expedition into the Sakang valley was the Indian Japanese team to Saser Kangri II in August 1985. From their account in the Himalayan Journal, Vol. 42, we had an understanding of the difficulties of the approach trek. The team had to climb more than a 1000 m on the first day itself to gain a high shoulder on Sakang peak before they could drop down to the valley.
Our five-member team, travelled to Leh on 21 July 2009 and completed formalities of reporting to various authorities. We decided that it was essential that we start the approach after acclamatisation on an easier trek. On 24 July, after two days of acclamatisation at Leh, we decided to trek across the Lasermo la (5400 m) into the Nubra valley. By afternoon we were dropped off a little further on the valley from Phyang, and we headed for the base of the pass. The route wound slowly up the valley along the river. By mid afternoon we were at camp. The weather closed in and in a steady drizzle, we pitched camp. The following day, we started early for the pass.
The route to the pass rises gently. As we climbed the last slope to the pass, I heard a few shouts. I quickly made my way back and found Sudeep in agonising pain. A small boulder had turned under him and his leg was caught under a large rock. Rajesh, being just behind pulled him free. We checked his leg. Fortunately it did not look like any bones were broken though the impact on his heel was quite severe and he slowly limped to the pass with us.
As we reached the pass, the snow came down heavier and the visibility reduced considerably. Without spending too much time, we quickly made our way down the other side. The weather cleared a bit as the day progressed and we trudged along. It was an unending walk down. Our unacclimatised group was exhausted. We were to reach Hunder Dok by evening, but we were too tired to continue by about 5 p.m and pitched camp at a beautiful spot near the river.
On the following day, we were at Hunder Dok by mid afternoon for a hot lunch. By evening we flopped into our rooms at Hunder, totally exhausted. Although the trek across Lasermo la in two and half days turned out to be a marathon in foul weather, the purpose was well served. Two days rest in the Nubra valley after our trek and we were well acclamatised, fit and rearing to go.
We started our approach for the base camp on 29 July from Pinchimik. Fortunately, our expedition manager Thinless had recceed a shorter route to the base camp. The route was usually followed by the villagers to access the upper grazing grounds in the valley. The route avoided the long climb to the shoulder of Sakang peak and the subsequent descent. The terrain on our route was rough - long traverses on scree covered rock slabs, loose mud and exposed paths. Rope had to be fixed at some points to safeguard movement of porters laden with heavy loads. It took us 10 long and arduous hours to gain the 1000 m to reach Phonglas camp at 4400 m.
On the next day, we turned a bend in the valley and the sight of Plateau Peak kept us spell bound. We spent more than an hour gazing at the huge rock faces on all sides of the mountain with a huge ice cap guarding access to the top. We scanned the mountain for potential routes. We made our way up the lateral morrain and established the base camp at 4800 m at the snout of the Sakang glacier. Base camp was a beautiful site with lovely patches of green on which we could pitch out tents. A small stream running through the site provided water. A day was spent in settling down, sorting loads and performing the customary puja.
We started movement in earnest and a reconnaissance of our route to advanced base camp was carried out immediately on 1 August. The route initially travelled along the lateral moraine of the glacier and then crossed over to the medial moraine. It took us about four hours to negotiate the loose rock and scree of the moraine to reach the camp. The heel injury proved to be a major issue with Sudeep, he continued up the mountain, but the pain was obvious and slowed him considerably. Advance base camp was established and occupied on 3 August at 5400 m on the moraine of the Sakang glacier. The views of Plateau Peak, Saser Kangri III and the entire cirque of subsidiary peaks around were awe-inspiring.
Detailed reconnaissance and study of the route to Plateau Peak was carried out. We had to find a route up a wall of about 1000 m to gain access to the east ridge of Plateau Peak.
Route of attempt marked on the ‘wall’. Saser Kangri III in
backround. Intended route was to reach the col above
and turn left to Plateau Peak. (Divyesh Muni)
Two teams recceed the mountain. We ruled out a direct approach on the mountain due to the threat of hanging serracs and avalanche prone slopes. After much deliberation we decided on a route that seemed safe from avalanches. The route would require us to climb the wall below Saser Kangri III and then traverse about 1.5 km to access the east ridge of Plateau Peak. It was a very committing route, but relatively safe from avalanches that guarded all other approaches to the peak. Thanks to Marlin, our ‘medicine-man’, a Veterinarian by profession, the route got nicknamed ‘Dog Leg’ route due to its shape.
Camp 1 was established at 5760 m at the head of Sakang glacier on 8 August. Route opening started on 9 August. We climbed in teams of three or four, allowing the rest of us to recuperate on those days. The route went up a narrow gully till the height of 6200 m. A steep climb led to the traverse below the rock band. The traverse was frightening due to extreme exposure combined with loose snow that kept collapsing with every passage of the climbers. One wasn’t confident about the weight bearing capacity of that slope. On completion of the traverse, we climbed straight up a snow and ice slope, that we called the ‘butterfly wing’.
For seven days we persisted, fixing a few additional rope lengths every day till it was turn-around time. As the sun touched the slopes of the wall and loosened rocks, the gully became a bowling alley. Despite the strict discipline of maintaining the turnaround time of 10.30 a.m. a few rocks did find their mark. We were fortunate not to suffer any major injuries. Our start time got earlier each day, till a point when we planned to start by midnight! It took hours of tiring climbing to reach each previous high point with little time to move further on the route. On 15 August, we reached the height of c. 6600 m after fixing 1350 m of rope.
On 15 August, Marlin Geist, Rajesh Gadgil, Sudeep Barve and I visited the Sakang col at 6100 m to overlook the North Shukpa Kungchang glacier. Considering the extreme nature of our climb, we were looking for a possible crossing route to the glacier as a back up plan or an escape route in case of any eventuality. However, we were greeted by overhanging walls, serracs and steep ice slopes on the east of the col and all thoughts of crossing over vanished. As we returned to camp, high clouds and the ominous ring around the sun signaled the onset of bad weather.
View from Sakang col (6100 m) Sakang peak in foreground and Saser Kangri I in background. (Divyesh Muni)
On 16 August, weather turned bad with strong winds and snowfall. We holed up in our tents, hoping the weather would settle soon and we could make our attempt. We needed only one more day of route opening to establish Camp 2. We had sufficient equipment at our high point and all of us were well acclamatised to shift camp for our summit attempt. What we needed was four days of clear weather.
However it was not to be. Snowfall continued for the next eight days. The heavy deposit of snow made the route unsafe and we did not have time enough to allow the snow to settle for further climbing. With great disappointment the team returned to base camp on 22 August in the continuing bad weather.
Marlin and Bryce returned to road head on 24 August. Rajesh and I were keen to attempt a peak 6010 m at the junction of Sakang glacier with its subsidiary glaciers. On 24 August the weather showed positive signs, so we shifted to Phonglas camp at 4400 m.
On 25 August, we climbed steep scree slopes and traversed some nerve racking rock slabs to established a camp at 5200 m below the northwest face of the peak.
On 26 August despite the cloudy skies, we decided to make the attempt, hoping the weather would hold. We climbed the north ridge of the peak with a few sections of steep ice. This connected to the west ridge leading to the summit of unnamed peak 6010 m. Samgyal, Mingma, Rajesh and I were at the summit by 10.00 a.m. We named the peak ‘Tsumzong Kangri’ , meaning ‘Junction Peak’. We were back at Phonglas camp by early evening.
We returned to Nubra on 27 August and we were back in Leh on 28 August 2009.
We will never know whether we would have reached the summit of Plateau Peak, but we were happy we had coped with the challenges of our chosen route, the ‘Dog Leg’. Snowfall continued on for days without respite. We were fortunate as our flight took off on 31 August despite low visibility and rains at Leh, the only flight that was not cancelled that day.
Members: Marlin Geist, Bryce Green, Rajesh Gadgil, Sudeep Barve, and Divyesh Muni
Plateau Peak (7310 m): Established a safe route to climb the peak and reached at an altitude of 6600 m on the route. 1350 m of rope were fixed on the wall to the col between Plateau Peak and Saser Kangri III.
Tsumzong Kangri (6010 m): First ascent of the peak was made on 26 August by Rajesh Gadgil, Samgyal Sherpa, Mingma Sherpa and Divyesh Muni.
Sakang col (6100 m): Marlin Geist, Sudeep Barve, Rajesh Gadgil and Divyesh Muni reached the col on 15 August.
In 1899, Messrs. Neve, Millaise and Tyndale-Biscoe climbed a peak of 20,580 ft to the east of Panamik and Neve’s Picturesque Kashmir has a photograph of Saser group taken from this summit. However as J. O. M. Roberts clarified later, Neve had confused 23,000-foot Plateau with the highest peak of Saser Kangri I. Dr Tom Longstaff (1909) and Ph. C. Visser (1929) surveyed the area and produced a map where Plateau is mentioned, though no name was given.
The area was visited by J. O. M. Roberts in 1946 while looking for feasible route to peaks of Saser Kangri group. From the Sakang valley he photographed this magnificent peak and because of a plateau on its summit (as opposed to other sharp summits of Saser Kangri group) gave this name. However in his magnificent panorama from ‘Look Out’ peak, which shows the cirque between Saser Kangri III and Plateau Peak, the difficulties of Plateau Peak are clearly visible. (See Himalayan Journal, Vol. XIV, page 9, ‘Saser Kangri, Eastern Karakoram, 1946’ by J. O. M. Roberts).