Vasuki Parvat

King of the Serpents

Paul Figg

The Garhwal region is best known to mountaineers for the Shivling (6540 m) and the Bhagirathi peaks, but offers a wealth of other challenges. After a failed attempt on Januhut (6805 m) in 2004 Malcolm Bass, Pat Deavoll and Paul Figg returned to Garhwal with their attention this time focused on the west face of Vasuki Parvat (6792 m) accompanied by Rachel Antill as expedition artist.

Tucked away off the Chaturangi glacier this peak has only been attempted a handful of times with only one confirmed ascent by a Japanese expedition of the east face in 1980 and an unconfirmed ascent in 1973 by an Indo Tibet Border Police expedition by an unspecified route. Attempts on the northwest ridge have also been made but failed to summit. In 2008 Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden attempted the west face but retreated due to a combination of poor acclimatisation and cold weather.

Vasuki Parvat. (Paul Figg)

Vasuki Parvat. (Paul Figg)

On arrival in Delhi on 12 September we were faced with probably what was to be the most testing time of the whole trip. Three days later our gear was in our possession and on 15 September, we were on our way out of Delhi. Before our arrival India had suffered the worst monsoon in decades and this became more and more evident as we drove towards Rishikesh, the condition of the roads became worse and worse as our bus struggled along the washed out roads. Eventually we were forced to abandon the bus on one side of a landslip and take to 4-WD’s beyond. Luckily we managed to arrive in Gangotri before local authorities prohibited tourist travel.

The path above Gangotri had been washed out and was impassable to porters so we were forced to spend an unplanned two days waiting for the path to be repaired. On 21 September we moved out heading alongside the Bhagirathi, beyond Bhojbasa we turned off the Gangotri glacier onto the Chaturangi glacier passing a French expedition attempting the Bhagirathi peaks based at Nandanvan. The French later on generously offered us a number of snow stakes that would be needed on Vasuki Parvat due to the large amount of fresh snow on parts of the route. An hour short of Vasuki tal, the usual base camp for Satopanth, we established base camp at 4900 m. This offered great views of the west face and easy acclimatisation on the lower slopes of the Bhagirathi peaks. Three days of acclimatisation up to 5800 m proved very helpful in getting us used to the altitude, unfortunately Pat didn’t acclimatise too well and suffered badly, the few days also told us that the sleeping bags we intended to use on route would be inadequate and we would have to use our heavier and bulkier but much warmer base camp sleeping bags.

On 3 October Malcolm Bass, Pat Deavoll and Paul Figg accompanied by Rachel Antill and our liaison officer Satyabrata Dam walked to the Vasuki glacier and made camp to allow for an early start the following morning.

Early on 4 October Pat, Malcolm and Paul continued up the glacier to the foot of the route, a narrow gully containing a thin layer of ice. Pat had the first block of leads and set off up the gully, never very steep but the thin ice and loose rock in the side walls made placing protection difficult. After 6/8 pitches the gully opened out revealing a col out to the right, across large snow slopes could be seen, our target for the day and Camp 1. Climbing as three, the plan had been to use one 2 person tent and a bivi bag to save weight and allow maximum flexibility at bivi / camp sites. Pat bravely offered to go for the bivi bag. Whilst packing the following morning we decided we were going to have to leave some kit behind to reduce weight, hopefully picking it up on the descent. The climbing on day two luckily looked much easier than anticipated, from base camp it looked like 60 degree ice and would have to be pitched, but in reality was much easier. Whilst about to head off Pat talked about her reservations in carrying on as she was suffering from the cold and had acclimatised badly. After reassurance we headed off up the snow slopes. During the early afternoon the weather showed a few signs of worsening and we opted to make use of a possible bivi site lower than would have been ideal, but in the end a good move, as we found out later that there was nothing else suitable within reach ahead.

After Camp 2 with Malcolm getting the short straw and spending the night in the bivy bag we continued up easy ground to the base of another steep gully. It was here that Pat decided to call it a day. Descending with the aid of our haul rope Pat descended to the site of our Camp 1, stopping there for the night to wait for better conditions before descending the following day to base camp. By now the sun had started to warm the gully and the stone fall started from above, Malcolm managed to take shelter from the bombardment but Paul took a blow to the shoulder momentarily slumping onto the rope eventually gathering his thoughts and joining Malcolm in a niche to shelter from the stone fall. It was decided to stay there until the sun had moved off from the gully so after a break of a couple of hours Malcolm led off up the gully containing a conglomerate mix of ice and stone. In the darkness we missed the traverse line taken by Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden and climbed too high up the gully and were forced to bivi on a small sloping ledge. It was whilst establishing a belay that Malcolm dropped his camera from around his neck removing some slings, amazingly the camera was found in pieces by Pat whilst she descended. After a cold night the following morning we managed to move out right for 3-4 pitches that lead to a spectacular ‘Fowler Pinnacle Bivi’ about the size of a pool table. This put us below the start of the steep mixed terrain. Not knowing where the next bivi would be we took the opportunity to make the most of the bivi.

Vasuki Parvat seen from base camp. (Satyabrata Dam)

Vasuki Parvat seen from base camp. (Satyabrata Dam)

The following morning after packing camp Malcolm traversed back left and started up the steep ground, however after only 20 m Malcolm whilst placing a piece of gear by his feet overbalanced backwards and fell around 10 m. In a state of concussion, Malcolm reversed back to the site of our bivi. After a few brews it was obvious Malcolm wouldn’t be up to climbing again that day so back up went the tent, minus a pole, this time it was Paul who managed to let a pole fly off down the mountain. At least we saved a bit of weight and the tent pitched ok. After a good rest the next day we set of up the steep ground giving great climbing, passing the scene of Malcolm’s fall. This ground took us to the high point of Mick Fowler below a tower of broken rock. After a false start and scaring myself on the loose rock I retreated and left it to Malcolm to force a way, at one point we had no option but to haul the lead sack through the bulging rock, the incoming dark didn’t help. From now on we didn’t have the advantage of Mick’s knowledge and were literally in the dark. After several further pitches desperately hoping for a bivy site we came across a small snow ridge where after an hour of digging we had a spot barely big enough for our Black Diamond tent. A short pitch of unconsolidated snow led to more steep mixed ground and with Malcolm bridging up on small footholds and making long reaches for good ice surmounted what would be the technical crux of the route and around Scottish VI 7. Above the last of the mixed ground ahead lay a long easy angled snow slope; although easy it was slow, hard going with the altitude and last few days taking their toll. With both of us starting to suffer from the effort we took the opportunity to rest and brew up below a huge overhanging roof that would have made a fantastic bivi had it not been so early in the day. Traversing right below the overhanging rock for a couple more pitches toward the end of the snow ramp, we were approaching a moment of uncertainty, would there be a way round the corner or would it be a dead end. From base camp it had been impossible to know if it would go. In near darkness I tentatively traversed around the rock shelf, unable to see a way ahead in the dark I scuttled back along the shelf to make a bivi for the night.

The following day, 11 October, Malcolm retraced my ground disappearing round the corner and lowered himself down two meters with tension from the rope and belayed in the gully. Once I’d joined Malcolm it looked as though there would be a choice of options, straight up the gully or carry on traversing up and right, from base camp this had looked the easiest route to the summit ridge, so slowly off we went with calf’s and thighs burning from the effort. Once on the ridge we were rewarded with fantastic views across to the Tibetan plains, turning north along the narrow ridge we continued, moving together along undulating ground looking for a suitable bivi, at the base of a 30 m rock tower and at the top of a gully we managed to dig out a small level patch, this was possibly the top of the gully mentioned earlier and would give more direct access to the ridge. Malcolm easily negotiated the tower at the start of day 8, 12 October, this was to be the last technical climbing before rejoining the ridge. The ridge gave easy access to the summit, moving together we passed slightly below the summit, both independently giving our thanks to Lord Vasuki, King of the Serpents, for allowing us to safely reach the summit and asking for a safe descent.

Traversing along the ridge sometimes with feet on the west face and hands reaching over sinking into soft powder snow on the east, with hands and forearms buried in the snow almost constantly all day, our fingers were starting to show the first signs of frost nip. As we continued to descend we could pick out the end of the ridge and where we would need to drop off to the northwest ridge. A couple of abseils down brought us to our last bivi spot below a small rock outcrop. As usual like every day we could see our base camp. With a bit of luck we would be there tomorrow night. On our 10th day we continued down the northwest ridge in terrible soft powder snow, the ropes were put away as there was no way of protecting the descent. Half way down, a stuff sack containing maps and head torch fell from Malcolm’s rucksack, a result of bad packing brought on from the exhaustion of the effort over the last 10 days.

Continuing on down we passed remnants of fixed ropes from the 1985 French expedition. Given good snow conditions the ridge would make a fantastic means of ascent. With the light slowly going we toiled on down, 100% driven on by the desire not to spend another night out with base camp so close. Stumbling on in the dark across the moraine with one head torch between the two of us we passed Vasuki tal and over the final rock ridge that separated us from base camp. Once within shouting distance after whistles and calls, head torches appeared from the camp heading toward us. Rachel Antill was first to meet us offering hugs and congratulations with Satya and Pat not far behind. Chander and Shanker our cook and cook’s assistant didn’t let us down and prepared a fantastic feast for us, a far cry from the gels and energy bars we’d lived on for the last 10 days.

Good luck or good planning? A mix of both I suspect, from the start of the trip it seemed as though luck was on our side. If we’d gone earlier we’d have been stuck in the heavy monsoon snows, tragically a large group of trekkers were avalanched the week before we got to base camp. If Ibex Expeditions didn’t have such good logistics and hadn’t done such a good job with the transport we might not have got to Gangotri on time and been stuck the wrong side of the landslips. At base camp the support proved invaluable and Satya, our LO was a great asset to the team. The weather once at base camp and on the route couldn’t have been better with negligible winds and clear skies.

First ascent of the west face of Vasuki Parvat (6792 m) accomplished by two climbers in alpine style.

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