Kellas Peak Revisited

Northwest Sikkim, Autumn 2009

George W. Rodway & Jeremy S.Windsor

In late October and early November of 2009, eight climbers (Graham Hoyland, Mark Lambert, Anindya Mukherjee, George Rodway, Dukpa Tsering Sherpa, Phurba Sherpa, Thendup Sherpa and Jeremy Windsor) were very fortunate to gain permission to enter northwest Sikkim and make an attempt on Kellas Peak (6680 m). Since western mountaineers had not ventured into the region for more than 75 years, the team relied heavily upon the work of the Indian Pundits and British luminaries such as Douglas Freshfield, Frank Smythe and Alexander Kellas in order to help them reach their objective. Kellas Peak is situated at the head of a valley, straddling the Indian border with Tibet, bordered by Lhonak peak (6710 m) to the north and Jongsang peak (7459 m) to the south. The mountain had been named by Frank Smythe and members of Professor G√ľnter Oskar Dyrenfurth’s 1930 International Himalayan Expedition in honour of the Scottish explorer and scientist Alexander Mitchell Kellas. This was well deserved, since between 1907 and 1920 Kellas carried out six expeditions to the high mountains of Sikkim, completing a number of first ascents, including that of Pauhunri (7125 m) and Chomoyummo (6829 m).

A. M. Kellas (1868-1921): Pioneering Scientist and Mountain Explorer: Since Dr. Kellas’ untimely death on 5 June 1921, near the village of Kampa Dzong, Tibet during the early stages of the first Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, this Scottish explorer, mountaineer and scientist has received relatively little attention in either the mountaineering or scientific literature. Some of this can certainly be attributed to his retiring disposition, as he did not care to publicise his high altitude physiology and mountaineering accomplishments with other than a relatively small number of primarily scientific-oriented papers.

NE aspect of Jongsang peak from Camp 2

4. NE aspect of Jongsang peak from Camp 2.

After the 1935 publication of ‘Alexander M. Kellas, ein Pionier des Himalaja’ by Paul Geissler in Deutsche Alpenzeitung (Geissler, 1935), no publication devoted to Kellas appeared in English until 1987, aside from an occasional mention in major Himalayan exploration and mountaineering histories such as, for example, those of Mason (Mason, 1955) and Unsworth (Unsworth, 2000). In 1987, the acclaimed high altitude physiologist John B. West wrote a detailed account of Kellas’ life that was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (West, 1987) and followed up with a more strictly mountaineering-oriented account shortly thereafter in the 1989/90 volume of The Alpine Journal (West, 1989/90). A.M. Kellas further entered the consciousness of those interested in the history of high altitude mountaineering when the journal High Altitude Medicine & Biology published his magnum opus ‘A Consideration of the Possibility of Ascending Mount Everest’ in 2001 (Kellas, 2001). This work is unique in that it displays not only Kellas’ grasp of the physiological difficulties involved in ascending the highest mountain on earth, but it is clear that he intimately understood the physical difficulties that would be involved in climbing Everest as well. Copies of this manuscript had lain dormant in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and The Alpine Club in London since 1920. Kellas had completed it shortly before sailing on his last voyage to Asia in the April of 1920 (from which he never returned), and with the exception of a poor French translation in a very obscure place, namely the ‘Proceedings of the Congress de l’ Alpinisme’ (Kellas, 1921), it had not seen publication.

Kellas, as improbable a figure as he was, can be argued to have been not only one of the finest exploratory Himalayan mountaineers in history, but also the first person to apply a state-of-the-art knowledge of high altitude physiology to field investigations at altitudes over 6000 m. It is extremely likely that by the time of his death he had spent more time above 6000 m than anyone on earth, undertaking no fewer than eight Himalayan expeditions between 1907 and 1921. Kellas’ major Himalayan climbs and explorations can be summarised thus (West, 1989/90):

1907 - Kashmir: Pir-Panjal range; Sikkim: Zemu glacier, Grunsee, Simvu (6816 m, unsuccessful) (Alpine Journal 34, 408)

1909 - Sikkim: Pauhunri (7125 m, unsuccessful), Jongsang la (6120 m), Langpo (6950 m), Jongsang peak (7459 m, unsuccessful) (Alpine Journal 34, 408)

1911 - Sikkim: Sentinel peak (6470 m), Pauhunri (7125 m), Chomoyummo (6829 m), Dhanarau peak (5790 m) (Alpine Journal 26, 52, 113; Geographical Journal 40, 241)

1912 - Sikkim: Kangchenjhau (6920 m) (Alpine Journal 27, 125)

1913 - Kashmir: explored access to Nanga Parbat via branch of Ganalo peak (little information available)

1914 - Garhwal: approaches to Kamet (little information available)

1920 - Garhwal: Kamet (7756 m, unsuccessful by 500 m) Sikkim: Kang la (Alpine Journal 33,312; Geographical Journal 57, 124, 213)

1921 - Sikkim: Kabru (7338 m, unsuccessful) Start of Everest Reconnaissance Expedition Kellas’ notable first ascents during this period included Langpo (6950 m), Pauhunri (7125 m), Chomoyummo (6829 m), and Kangchenjhau (6920 m).

Aside from Kellas’ participation in the 1921 ‘Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition’, it is almost certain that his most significant original contribution to the advancement of mountaineering at extreme altitude was a high altitude physiological field study - the 1920 Kamet expedition - undertaken with Henry T. Morshead. Morshead soon after distinguished himself by accompanying Mallory, Somervell, and Norton to nearly 8000 m on Everest in 1922. The undertaking on Kamet (7756 m), conceived and organised by Kellas, was unique because it focused for the first time, upon the practical difficulties inherent in climbing at very high altitudes. During this endeavor, with Morshead’s assistance, Kellas carried out the first rigorous tests of the value of supplementary oxygen for climbing at high altitude in preparation for the Everest Reconnaissance expedition the following year.

Kellas was one of the first Europeans to recognise the natural mountaineering talents of Himalayan natives, and he was almost certainly the first to rely extensively on them as sole climbing companions during numerous extended high altitude explorations and climbs in the Sikkim and Garhwal Himalaya. Kellas’ qualities did not go unnoticed by his British companions in the few Himalayan ventures he undertook where he did not explore and climb exclusively with native porters. In a touching letter written from Tibet shortly after Kellas’ death and dated 19 June 1921, a man who figured prominently in the early exploration and climbing history of Everest, J.B.L. Noel, summarised his opinion of Kellas’ ‘outstanding points’ to Arthur R. Hinks, Secretary of the RGS (Noel, 19 June 1921):

1. An experienced amateur mountaineer going at Himalayan peaks alone, with supporting party of specially selected and trained native porters;

2. First to discover the best natives for mountaineering, namely Sherpa Bhotias, and first to train teams of Sherpas for high climbing above 23,000 ft;

3. His tactful and successful handling of natives in regard to successful joint mountaineering projects in the Himalaya;

4. His wonderful energy, perseverance, and drive - the fundamental qualities that enable the mountaineer to conquer his surroundings.

Noel ended his letter to Hinks with a prophetic ‘I am sure we will all miss Kellas very much indeed’.

In point of fact, aside from being deprived of a moving force in Himalayan exploration, the British mountaineering establishment did not again have such a proponent willing and able to systematically evaluate the value of supplementary oxygen for climbing at high altitude until physiologist Griffith Pugh once again took up the challenge in the early 1950s in preparation for the successful 1953 ascent of Everest.

Kangchenjunga, Tent peak and Pyramid peak seen from Muguthang

5. Kangchenjunga, Tent peak and Pyramid peak seen from Muguthang.

Kangchenjunga and Tent peak seen from Muguthang

6. Kangchenjunga and Tent peak seen from Muguthang.

The South and North Lhonak glaciers are visible in the background. Kellas peak on left, Lhonak peak in center

7. Camp 1 was situated on the flat section beside the large boulder on the right hand side of the river. The South and North Lhonak glaciers are visible in the background. Kellas peak on left, Lhonak peak in center.

Looking up the Lhonak valley toward Jongsang peak

8. Hoyland (left) and Rodway, looking up the Lhonak valley toward Jongsang peak (on right side of photo) during the approach.

Area map - North Sikkim

The 2009 Journey

From Gangtok we headed north by a 4x4 vehicle through the district capital of Lachen before eventually reaching the roadhead at Thanggu. Here, with the help of local yak owners and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police we were able to hire animals, cross the Lungnak la and establish a base camp near the temporary settlement of Rasum. However, obtaining the yaks needed to cross the Lungnak la proved difficult. Not only was the correct paperwork needed, but permissions were also required from the yak owners, the head of the yak owner’s cooperative, the headman of the village and the local military commander! This process was slowed further by two factors that could affect future visitors: 1) The Indian army had commandeered most of the available yaks in order to re-supply their observation posts before the arrival of winter. Since the military pays well and provide the vast majority of the work in the area there was little incentive for the yak owners to work for anyone else; 2) Of the remaining yaks, many had been moved to the valley pastures in preparation for the winter.

At 5035 m, the Lungnak la is covered in snow for most of the year. Whilst the two routes across the pass are well frequented, heavy snows often make both routes impassable for yaks once the winter arrives. The descent to Muguthang (4533 m) from the Lungnak la was straightforward, with a well marked track around the northern shore of the Charob Cho leading towards the Muguthang valley far below. In good conditions this journey can be completed in less than six hours, however a poorly acclimatised party in difficult conditions (e.g., breaking trail through deep snow) will take considerably longer.

From Muguthang the path heads south west, crossing the Langbo chu at Dolmasampa before continuing on towards the settlement of Lungma. From early autumn until late spring the majority of settlements marked on the ‘Sikkim Himalaya’ map (Schweiz, 2006) are little more than collections of bare patches of earth and stones; however Lungma is the exception with several one storey houses gathered on the northern river bank. Heading west, the trail climbs to Lungma (4670 m) before descending into the Lhonak valley that runs for almost 40 km along the Goma chu.

After reaching base camp, we found it necessary to establish four further camps along the Goma chu before we were finally in a position to make an attempt on our target. Our advanced base camp was a windy, cold spot situated at the foot of the terminal moraine. From here we moved quickly to establish Camp 1, approximately 10 km further west. We were able to access the mountain by following the river draining the Jongsang and Lhonak glaciers. At the point where the river turned briefly south we crossed north and continued over steep scree before descending into an area we referred to as ‘Kellas Sanctuary’. The borders of the sanctuary are formed by the peaks of Jongsang, Kellas, Lhonak and Chorten Nyima and contain the Jongsang glacier and the North and South Lhonak glaciers. At Camp 1 we still remained almost 10 kms from our target. It was therefore necessary to establish two further camps. Camp 2 was placed beside the lake at the foot of the South Lhonak glacier, whilst Camp 3 was situated directly below the col. It was to this col that we ultimately decided to climb in order to take the most straightforward route to the upper slopes of Kellas Peak. Bordered by Jongsang, Kellas and Lhonak peaks, the lake beside Camp 2 was in a stunning location. It was approached from Camp 1 by following the river west until the most eastern tip of the lake was found. This 3-4 hour journey involved very little ascent but took us to the edge of the glacier and the start of the climbing ‘proper’.

Climbing toward ‘Kellas col’, looking down the Lhonak valley, with Chorten Nyima on left side

9. Climbing toward ‘Kellas col’, looking down the Lhonak valley, with Chorten Nyima on left side of photo

At first the team tried to reach the upper slopes of Kellas Peak by climbing the Lhonak la. This ground had previously been trod on two occasions. The first instance was during the first ascent of Lhonak peak in October of 1930 by G.B Gourlay and W. Eversden, who were accompanied by Sherpas Kippa, Nima and Lewa. Nima and Lewa were, incidentally, to distinguish themselves less than a year later on the successful 1931 first ascent of 7756 m Kamet in the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalaya (Gourlay, 1932). This had also been used as a descent to the Lhonak valley in July of 1933 by Lawrence Wager and Eric Shipton after Shipton and a porter named Aila had successfully accomplished the second ascent of Lhonak peak in the process of traversing from Tibet into Sikkim. These two Everest veterans were on their way home from the British Everest expedition of that year through Tibet, subsequently heading for the West Bengal towns of Darjeeling and Calcutta via Sikkim. Wager and Shipton had actually planned to attempt Kellas Peak from their camp on the Lhonak la as well, prior to descending into the Lhonak valley, but a snowstorm caused them to abandon the idea (Shipton, 1934; Wager, 1934). Years earlier, Howard Somervell, C.G. Crawford, and George Mallory visited this area en route to Darjeeling in the summer of 1922 after that year’s British Everest expedition. While exploring the area, they made an unsuccessful attempt on Jongsang peak. They were almost undoubtedly the first to have trod the ground in this region since Freshfield’s circumnavigation of Kangchenjunga in 1899 and Kellas’ explorations and climbs here during the previous decade. Not surprisingly, Somervell, Crawford and Mallory were plagued by summer monsoon conditions, but nevertheless still managed to climb ‘several virgin peaks of 18,000 feet and more, and visited many points on the great watershed which forms the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet’ (Somervell, 1936).

Kellas Peak

10. Kellas Peak. Photo taken from ‘Kellas col’ on border of Tibet and Sikkim, looking at Kellas Peak. Intended route of ascent was ridge facing the camera (at obvious interface of the left-hand ice slope and mixed rock/ice face in middle of photo). Tibet to the left in this image.

However, in November 2009, the dangers posed by numerous avalanches and extensive crevasses encountered en route to the Lhonak la meant that we were forced to cross the South Lhonak glacier and ascend the northern slopes of Jongsang and attempt the mountain from the south. This approach was more straightforward, but the hours spent sinking into snow up to a metre deep were painstaking. Unfortunately, deep snow, further crevasses and loose rock led to us abandoning the attempt on Kellas Peak and instead turning our attentions to the col (6343 m) between Kellas Peak and the previously unclimbed Peak 6252 m, a sub-summit on a ridge of Jongsang peak. These were successfully reached on 2 November 2009. From a search of the UK Alpine Club archives it appears that the col between Kellas and Jongsang peak, which we had coined ‘Kellas col’, had seen two previously recorded ascents, both made during attempts on nearby Jongsang peak in the early decades of the 20th century. This of course does not rule out the possibility of more recent visitors to this col, but it is quite unlikely any western mountaineers had been here since the 1930s! The first visit to this particular spot, made by Alexander Kellas and his Sherpa companions in 1909 during an unsuccessful attempt on Jongsang, was followed 21 years later by members of the 1930 International Himalaya expedition on the way to making the first ascent of Jongsang peak.

Scholars of the history of this region will also recall that in 1879, the famous Indian Pundit, Sarat Chandra Das, was the first (at least on record) to explore this remote part of Sikkim when he crossed the nearby Chorten Nyima la between Sikkim and Tibet whilst investigating the approaches to Tibet in the region to the north and northeast of Kangchenjunga. Not long after this, Das was the first person on record to cross the nearby Jongsang la between Sikkim and Nepal. One unique feature of this particular area is that it sits at the point where the borders of Tibet, Sikkim, and Nepal intersect. In the days before political realities made it impossible, explorers could cross from Nepal into Sikkim and then into Tibet over the course of a couple days of stiff mountain walking via the Jongsang la and Chorten Nyima la.


The weather during our stay in the Lhonak valley had been excellent. We incorrectly assumed that Kangchenjunga ‘stole’ the worst of the weather; however, local yak herders later assured us that we had been rather lucky and the weather had been unusually good for this time of year. Our journey back to Gangtok was a straightforward task. Since both of our liaison officers had spent a considerable amount of time in Muguthang, they were able to organise yak transport and they arrived at base camp on our pre-arranged day. The conditions on the Lungnak la were much better than those that we had encountered on our walk in and our return to Thanggu was a comfortable one.

This voyage through northwest Sikkim provided a fine opportunity to study further mountaineering opportunities in the area. Many of these can easily be located on the ‘Sikkim Himalaya’ map published by the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research in 2006. A number of attractive unclimbed peaks were spotted in the Lungnak, Muguthang and Lhonak valleys. Provided access to these areas remains possible, the northwest corner of Sikkim should attract mountaineers for many years to come.

  • Geissler, P. (1935). Alexander M. Kellas, ein Pionier des Himalaja. Deutsche Alpenzeitung, 30, 103-110.
  • Gourlay, G. B. (1932). Lhonak, 1930. The Himalayan Journal, IV, 123-134.
  • Kellas, A. M. (1921). Sur les possibilites de faire l’ascension du Mount Everest. Congres de l’Alpinisme, Monaco, 1920. C.R. Seances Paris, 1, 451-521.
  • Kellas, A. M. (2001). A consideration of the possibility of ascending Mount Everest. High Altitude Medicine & Biology, 2(3), 431-461.
  • Mason, K. (1955). Abode of snow: A history of Himalayan exploration and mountaineering. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
  • Noel, J. B. L. (19 June 1921). Correspondence to A.R. Hinks, Royal Geographical Society Archives. London.
  • Schweiz, H. (Cartographer). (2006). Sikkim Himalaya, 1:150,000. Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research.
  • Shipton, E. E. (1934). Lashar Plain. The Alpine Journal, 129-131.
  • Somervell, T. H. (1936). After Everest: The experiences of a mountaineer and medical missionary (p.66). London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited.
  • Unsworth, W. (2000). Everest: The mountaineering history (3rd ed.). Seattle: The Mountaineers.
  • Wager, L. R. (1934). The Lhonak La. The Himalayan Journal, VI, 51-53.
  • West, J. B. (1987). Alexander M. Kellas and the physiological challenge of Mt. Everest. Journal of Applied Physiology, 63 (1), 3-11.
  • West, J. B. (1989/90). A.M. Kellas: Pioneer Himalayan physiologist and mountaineer. The Alpine Journal, 94 (338), 207-213.0

Summary: An attempt on Kellas Peak (6680 m) in the Sikkim Himalaya.