The First Ascent of Saser Kangri II

And other Peaks of the Eastern Karakoram

Mark Richey

When we first saw Saser Kangri in 2001 from our high bivouac on Yamandaka in the Eastern Karakoram of India, we didn’t even know its name. My partner Mark Wilford and I shivered that early dawn as we gazed north to a group of four massive peaks and snapped a few photographs of them. Later, Harish Kapadia, co-leader of our expedition with Sir Chris Bonington, confirmed the great peaks to be Saser Kangri I, II, III, and IV.

Over the next few years, I became fascinated with this region and the unexplored mountains along the Siachen glacier, which lie even further to the north. Despite persistent attempts to obtain a climbing permit to enter the Siachen, I was denied it three years in row. In 2006, I got a call from Harish who asked me, ‘Why not go to Saser Kangri II? The East peak is unclimbed and higher than West and no problem for permit.’I applied the following spring, but was too late for the 2007 season so I travelled to Pakistan instead.

The following year I began to research the Saser Kangri peaks. I discovered there was little information or photos of the region since few expeditions had been there. Harish sent me a picture taken from the Khardung la, a high motor able pass to the south. It showed a huge rock and ice face on the southwest aspect of Saser Kangri II but the lower half was hidden from view. At 7518 m, Saser Kangri II East was possibly the second highest unclimbed mountain in the area, after Saltoro Kangri II (7705 m) . Also Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan, where climbing is prohibited due to religious and political reasons, is higher.

The west peak of Saser Kangri II had been reached by a massive Indian-Japanese expedition in 1985 following a route from the north. They suggested the west summit was similar in height to the east, but separated by a long and complex ridge. Because of this claim, Saser Kangri II fell into obscurity even though the main, eastern summit remained unclimbed. I shared the photos with Steve Swenson, my climbing partner from Seattle, and we hatched a plan to attempt Saser Kangri East from the Nubra valley side of the mountain the following summer.

By mid September of 2009, Steve, Mark Wilford from Colorado, Jim Lowther from the UK, and I found ourselves half way up the 1700 m southeast face of Saser Kangri II. Huddled in two tiny tents perched on a narrow ledge of ice, a storm raged and temperatures dropped well below zero as we struggled to melt water with a failing stove. We were exhausted from an open bivouac the previous night and the rigors of two months of climbing and reconnaissance - this included six forays over a 6000 m pass, which was our only access to the South Shukpa Kunchang glacier from the Nubra valley side. On our fourth day, we made the decision to retreat. Although unsuccessful, we learned a great deal about the mountain. The southwest face was big and technical but relatively safe from objective dangers and it provided a very direct route to the main summit. We also learned that virtually no ledges existed on the wall and that it was very cold in late September.

In 2011, after nine months of waiting for our permit to be processed by the IMF, Steve Swenson and I were ready to return for a second attempt. This time we would recruit the youthful talent of Freddie Wilkinson from New Hampshire, a thirty-one year old professional climber and already one of the top US alpinists. Three other experienced climbers would join the team: Freddie’s wife Janet Bergman, also a professional climber; Emilie Drinkwater, a professional climbing and skiing guide from upstate New York; and Alaskan extreme skier and guide, Kirsten Kremer. The ladies’ plan was to share our base camp while attempting other unclimbed peaks in the region, mainly a beautiful rocky peak just above base camp.

Saser Kangri II, South face. (Mark Richey)

Saser Kangri II, South face. (Mark Richey)

Approaching Saser Kangri II on skis. (Steve Swenson)

Approaching Saser Kangri II on skis. (Steve Swenson)

In addition to the American members, we were joined by six Indian climbers: Chewang Motup, expedition co-leader; Konchok Thinles, our Sirdar; Pemba Norbu Sherpa (aka King Kong); Dhan Singh Harkotia; Jangla Tashi Phunchok; and Tshering Sherpa. Raj Kumar from the Indian Army, served as our liaison officer.

By 11 July, the whole team was comfortably settled in a lovely high meadow base camp at about 5000 m at the snout of the Sakang Lungpa glacier, which was just a four day walk from the Nubra valley. Wild flowers, awesome boulders, a gurgling brook, and amazing views of nearby Plateau Peak made for one of the finest base camps any of us had ever experienced. Best of all, we had it all to ourselves!

On 23 July, Steve, Freddie, and I packed up and skied over the 6000 m pass to an advanced base camp on the South Shukpa Kunchang glacier, directly below the 1700 m southwest face of Saser Kangri II. Our first attempt on the face, intended to be a recce to our 2009 highpoint, ended at our first camp; dubbed ’The Launchpad’ after extreme heat caused major snow sloughs and rock fall in the Great Couloir, the main feature on the wall was that it bisects the southwest face and the start of our climb.

At this point, it was clearly too hot to attempt Saser Kangri II so we made another plan and skied down the South Shukpa Kunchang glacier to explore a spectacular cirque of mountains that had caught our attention. One 6585 m high peak looked promising, particularly after we discovered a perfect line of ice runnels splitting the steep north face and leading directly to a triangular summit. After a few days rest in BC, we were back to ABC for a go at the ice climb. Starting at 4.00 a.m. on 31 July with nothing but day packs, we climbed twelve pitches of superb grade 4+ ice to the summit ridge. We then made a tricky traverse to the top arriving at 6.00 p.m., just as the final rays of sun painted the range in alpenglow. From the summit, we got spectacular views north to Saser Kangri II and could see that the East Peak was considerably higher than the Western point reached by the 1985 expedition.

A twenty-two hour round trip, including thirteen rappels on v-threads and a long ski in the dark, got us back to ABC exhausted but thrilled with our first ascent. With suggestions from our Indian companions, we named the mountain Tsok Kangri, a Buddhist term that refers to the practice of gathering merit and wisdom in one’s life.

Back in BC, we all celebrated with our first bottle of whiskey and a small party. On 4 August, encouraged by an excellent weather forecast, we returned to ABC to attempt more of the lovely peaks above the South Shukpa Kunchang while we waited for the weather to cool down for Saser Kangri II. The ladies would join us since they encountered considerable rock fall hazard on their peak above BC and were anxious to attempt something more stable. Steve had developed a nasty sinus infection and decided to descend to the Nubra valley to make a complete recovery and get ready for our attempt on Saser Kangri II.

First to strike were Emilie and Kirsten with their first ascent of Pumo Kangri, 6250 m via the west face on 5 August. Assuming their route to be mainly neve snow, they carried only one ice screw and no bivvy gear. The snow turned out to be just a veneer over water ice and although they simul-climbed most of the way, they arrived on the summit late afternoon and made some fifteen rappels in the dark using just one ice screw to make v-threads. As they reached the snow field above the glacier, they passed Freddie and Janet on their way up to bag the first ascent of Saserling, a spectacular rock tower to the north. Their route follows a steep crack system in good granite for eight pitches of American grade 5-9+ and finishes directly on a pointed summit. After just one day of rest, everyone was ready to go again and skied across the valley to a high camp below a 6660 m peak that we named Stegosaurus, for a central spine of rock towers that reminded us of the dinosaur’s armored back.

From our high camp, the five of us climbed together up a steep line of snow just right of the towers to a 300 m traverse along the final ridge, where we belayed each other one at a time to the corniced summit. This would be the fourth first ascent of the expedition and an altitude record for all the ladies. The best part was yet to come when we enjoyed a superb ski descent back to ABC. It was great fun watching pro-skiers Emily and Kirsten as they effortlessly carved turns and jumped small crevasses.

Back in base camp the following day we were surprised not to find Steve, who was still recovering in the Nubra. It was time for the girls to head home so we all descended to the Nubra to say farewell, check on Steve’s status, which thankfully had improved, and enjoy a few days of rest, cold beer, and the local hot springs.

On 16 August, Freddie, Steve, and I were back in BC anxious for promising weather. With less than two weeks left in the expedition, we were running out of time. On 19 August , we got a good forecast calling for high pressure, low winds, and light precipitation for the next six to eight days. The bad news; it would be followed by a significant disturbance. The race was on.

The next morning we left base camp with Thinles, Tserring, Tashi, and Pemba. We reached ABC early in the afternoon and began preparing for the climb. Above ABC, Steve, Freddie, and I would climb in alpine style, which meant we had to be light. We packed five days of food, mostly cheese, sausage, soups, and energy bars, six days fuel, a tiny two-man tent and a minimal rack of eight ice screws, five pitons, and a dozen nuts and cams. To cut weight, we carried just two sleeping bags, one regular and a larger one that two could share. Finally, we carried our secret weapon, two specially designed ‘ice hammocks’, which consisted of two ounces of eight foot-long fabric sheets with sewn loops on either end to anchor to the wall. Additionally, we filled them with chopped ice so that they could create a tent platform on the nearly ledge-less face. That night my mind raced with details. Had we planned for everything? Had Steve adequately recovered? Would the weather hold long enough for a summit bid? I tossed and turned with nervous energy until the wee hours.

Morning came with stiff wind as we skied to the base of the face for the last time. Freddie, who was in the lead, called back to Steve and me to watch out for crevasses as they’d opened up since our last attempt. In the cold pre-dawn light, we stashed our skis, and like automatons we ascended the snow funnel to the bergschrund and start of the Great Couloir.

From right, Saser Kangri II main (east) summit and west top on left from Pumo Kangri. (Emilie Drinkwater)

From right, Saser Kangri II main (east) summit and west top on left from Pumo Kangri. (Emilie Drinkwater)

Freddie led the first block of fifty-five degree ice, while Steve and I managed the ropes and then simul-climbed to his stance, hung our packs, and repeated the process. After three pitches up we discovered that hard neve snow had formed on top of the ice in places allowing us to move together without belays. With the improved conditions, we moved faster than on previous attempts and by late morning we had reached the Launch Pad bivy just as the sun beamed over us. Even though colder than our first attempt, we knew that the Great Couloir above would be active in the sun; and with that, we set up our tent and waited.

At 3.00 a.m. Steve took the lead, sometimes belaying and sometimes climbing together, and we flew up the giant face. By 10.00 a.m., we reached the spot of our second camp in 2009. I took over the lead as we passed mixed rock and ice to the ‘Ice Chimney’ pitch. Steve had led this section in 2009, at the end of a long day and in the dark as the rest of our team desperately hacked out a non-existent ledge. This time, however, it was pure fun. Freddie hollered up encouragingly as I passed a tricky bulge and exited on the steep ice slopes above. We were now above our 2009 highpoint and it was still early on the second day. Three more pitches and a long traverse to the right placed us on top of a small, rocky buttress. As I joined Freddie at the stance he commented, ’I think this is the best we’re going to do‘ referring to the 45 degree slopping ledge we would camp on. It was time to test the ‘Ice Hammock’.

After two hours work, chopping ice and transporting snow in our packs to fill hammocks that slung over the rock like giant braziers, we had the makings of a ledge just able to accommodate our shelter and provide a good nights rest. Without the Ice Hammocks, we would have been sitting exposed and upright all night.

At this point, we had climbed more than half the wall and had broken through the rock band almost without knowing, a section we feared would be difficult. Furthermore, the weather was calm and clear. All was going our way except for one thing: Steve’s sinus infection had returned and it was getting worse.

That night, we rested and hydrated well and despite a lot of hacking and snorting, Steve felt OK in the morning as we busied ourselves for the climb.

Freddie took over the lead early, rock climbing to the top of the buttress and then diagonally up a broad gully we called ’The Ramp’. Although never steep or overly technical, the relentless low angle of water ice was taxing, particularly at 7000 m with full packs. Nonetheless, the Ramp offered an amazing passage through an otherwise imposing rock wall. After eight pitches, the Ramp dead-ended at an overhanging cul de sac. Freddie spied a weakness on the left side of the rock wall, traversed into a crack system, hooking and dry-tooling with a balancing move into a blind corner that led to the top. We named this the ‘Escape Hatch’ pitch, which represented the technical crux of our climb and a key passage to easier snow and ice slopes above. Steve and I followed, arms pumped and lungs burning as we joined Freddie at a small stance.

Since it was already late in the day, we began searching for a bivouac; however, wherever we attempted to excavate snow and ice we hit rock within a foot. In frustration, Freddie lowered around a corner beneath an overhang and shouted, ‘I think we can chop it here, just maybe’. I then joined him, and we feverishly hacked at the ice while Steve dried his clothing that was soaked from a leaked water bottle in his pack. This time we were without the advantage of our Ice Hammock as we had used at both previous camps - we intentionally left them in place for the descent. As darkness enveloped, we squeezed into the tent, its outer corners hanging over the void. The tent was tied to an ice screw and safety tether also snaked down through a hole in the top. We filled the corners with boot shells and extra gear; it was a pretty good set-up.

On the down side, Steve’s condition had worsened and he was coughing up a lot of phlegm. He would later confide, ‘I was thinking I just needed to make it to a high camp, then Freddie and Mark can go for the summit and I’ll wait for them in the tent’. That team approach epitomises Steve’s character and is testament to our close friendship. Freddie and I were thinking differently. We were so close you could taste the summit and the weather was holding. We had dreamed of this mountain for three years and we’d worked so hard. We couldn’t imagine leaving Steve behind. We never even discussed it.

That night, as we ate soup and cheese, we strategised for the next day. We would take light packs leaving the tent and most of our equipment behind. I would lead to the summit ridge where Freddie would take over. If snow was deep, Steve suggested that he could help plough, but we knew it was going to be fight for him just getting to the top in his condition.

We woke to our fifth day of perfect weather and climbed three pitches of moderate ice to a broad flat shoulder on the summit ridge and took a break in the warm sun. Surrounding us were unclimbed mountains and unexplored glaciers as far as the eye could see. Tsok Kangri was far below us now. It would have been an awesome camp if we could have made it there the night before. Freddie led us up a steep slope and along a sharp crest and then stopped and waited for me just a rope length from the top. ’Go on‘he said ’you go first‘. When there was nowhere higher to go, emotion overcame me and I let out a primal scream. Moments later we were all on top together. We cheered, embraced, shook hands, and I squeezed Steve so hard that he could hardly breathe. Freddie filmed as we babbled on about our incredible fortune; a great team, great friends, a virgin 7500 m peak in a remote Karakoram range on an absolutely perfect day. It had been anything but easy for Steve and it is proof of his tremendous will and endurance that he carried on despite his illness. In his words, ’I have climbed other more difficult mountains but this one was the toughest for me.’ Given Steve’s impressive climbing career, his comment speaks volumes.

We then shed our jackets and helmets and spent a long time on top. It seemed surreal as we gazed north past unclimbed peaks to Karakoram giants and Steve pointed out K2, Broad Peak, and the Gasherbrums. It truly was, as Steve put it, ‘dreamy’.

Below us and half a kilometre to the west, was a rounded dome of snow above a prominent rock tower that we recognised as the West summit of Saser Kangri II. We estimated it to be 100 to 150 m below us and lacking any real prominence. This confirmed our suspicion that the East Peak was not only the true summit of Saser Kangri II, but also the West top was more of a shoulder than an actual summit.

Eventually, we had to go down and we reminded ourselves that the job was not done until all were safely back in base camp. Arriving at our high camp by early afternoon, we crawled inside to rest and hydrate. That is when things began to go badly. Steve was definitely quite ill now and was having trouble breathing. Unable to lie down for fear of choking on his phlegm, he spent the night sitting upright at the door while Freddie and I squished into the back and did our best to make him comfortable. No one slept and by morning we awoke to snow falling. Freddie set the first rappel as I melted water and we hurriedly packed the tent.

Although we were all tired, Steve was sufficiently exhausted, moving painfully slow and beginning to lose his mental acuteness. One of our ropes had been cut by a falling stone the day before and we needed to pass the knot on each rappel. What would normally be a straightforward task seemed to confuse Steve and at one point he accidentally unclipped himself from the rope during descent. After that we watched him like hawks.

By midday, we had descended half the face, clouds filled the valley, and we were again lucky. Had bright sun persisted, avalanches in the Great Couloir would have forced us to stop and wait for the cool of night. I took over the rappels and we bee-lined down on V-threads. Despite the cloud cover running, water flowed beneath the ice in various places.

Then, a thunderous crack echoed above and rocks of all sizes rained down upon us. We were all tethered to a single ice screw, swaying from side to side as we dodged the deadly projectiles for what seemed like eternity. ’It’s like being shot at with Howitzers‘ a Vietnam veteran and friend would later say. No one was hit and amazingly, Freddie captured the whole event on video.

Thirty-five rappels, the last twelve by headlamp, delivered us to the glacier and our skis. It was scary sliding down the icy surface by headlamp, accelerating towards crevasses that had widened during the warm weather, realising that putting on the breaks might lead to an awkward plunge into the abyss. So we jumped and prayed.

Final summit ridge of Saser Kangri II. (Freddie Wilkinson)

Final summit ridge of Saser Kangri II. (Freddie Wilkinson)

In the foggy darkness we skied right past our camp and had to back track searching for the tents. Eventually, our companions, Thinles, Dhan Singh and Pemba heard our calls and hurried to greet us with hot tea and cheers of congratulations. We drank and by midnight collapsed into our bags and slept like the dead.

That is until 3.00 a.m. I awoke to a persistent tug on my leg. ‘Go away, let me sleep’ was my first reaction. It was Steve. ‘I am in trouble and I need help’ he said in a weak voice. One look in his eyes told me it was urgent. His coughing was dislodging chunks of sticky phlegm and periodically would block his air-way. With the SAT phone we called Steve’s doctor Brownie in the States and asked for advice. ‘Keep him hydrated and make sure he doesn’t suffocate.’ Weighing the circumstances and our remote location, we placed a call to Global Rescue, our American Alpine Club rescue provider and initiated a helicopter evacuation. Over the next twelve hours, we communicated our position and situation to Chewang Motup of Rimo Expeditions, joint leader of our Saser Kangri II expedition, to my wife Teresa who had joined Motup in Leh, and to the Global Rescue agent in Boston. They, in turn, obtained clearance from the Indian Home Department, thereby releasing the Indian Air force to send their highly trained helicopter pilots up the South Shukpa Kunchang glacier for the evacuation.

Throughout the day, we all did our best to make Steve comfortable, keeping him warm and upright in a chair made of ski’s and snow and pushing warm liquids constantly. But at times the waves of choking nearly overcame him and we feared for his life. Secretly, Freddie and I prepared crude tools, plastic tubes from a harness and a sterilised Swiss Army knife for a last resort tracheotomy if it came to that. Fortunately nothing so drastic was required and at 3.00 p.m. the telltale whir of rotor blades filled the air. Freddie and I had a huge sigh of relief.

Two choppers flying low over the mountains, made a big circle before putting down next to our makeshift Helipad of skis. The second chopper was a backup in case the first would have trouble taking off from the 5800 m landing zone or crash. We loaded Steve in, confirmed with the co-pilot that there was only one evacuee, and within an hour Steve was being attended to at the general hospital in Leh. Thanks to intravenous antibiotics and the expertise of great doctors and nurses, Steve made a rapid recovery. Although weak, he was able to return to our hotel after just a few days.

Meanwhile, Tashi, Pemba, Tshering, Dhan Singh, Freddie and I broke down ABC, traversed up and over to base camp and the next day all descended to the Nubra valley where we were met by Teresa, her friend Lisa from the States, and Motup. After a few days, we were all together in Leh for a wonderful celebration.

Saser Kangri II and our other climbs were a great success for all of us and provided a remarkable adventure. Collectively, we made five first ascents including the world’s second highest unclimbed mountain. All were climbed free, in alpine style, without the aid of fixed ropes or camps on any of the climbs.

Expedition Summary

First Ascent, Saser Kangri II East Peak, (7518 m) via the southwest face, ‘The Old Breed’. WI 4 M3, 1700 m. 24 August, 2011. Richey, Swenson, Wilkinson.

First Ascent, Tsok Kangri (6585 m) via the north face, WI4+, 680 m. 31 July 2011. Richey, Swenson, Wilkinson.

First Ascent, Pumo Kangri (6250 m) via the west face, WI3, 450 m. 5 August,2011. Drinkwater and Kremer.

First Ascent, SaserLing (6100 m) via the south face. 5.9+, 8 pitches, 350 m. 6 August, 2011. Bergman and Wilkinson.

First Ascent, Stegosaurus (6660 m), via the south glacier to south ridge. Steep snow climbing and ridge traverse. 9August, 2011. Bergman, Drinkwater, Kremer, Richey and Wilkinson.

First ascent of Saser Kangri II East Peak (7518 m) and other four peaks in the Sakang Lungpa and Shukpa Kunchang glaciers of the Nubra valley.

Freddie Wilkinson at the launch Pad Bivy. (Steve Swenson)

Freddie Wilkinson at the launch Pad Bivy. (Steve Swenson)

Nearing the Launch Pad bivy. (Freddie Wilkinson)

Nearing the Launch Pad bivy. (Freddie Wilkinson)

Traversing the final summit ridge on Tsok Kangri. (Freddie Wilkinson)

Traversing the final summit ridge on Tsok Kangri. (Freddie Wilkinson)

Saserling, Pumo Kangri and Tsok Kangri. (Mark Richey)

Saserling, Pumo Kangri and Tsok Kangri. (Mark Richey)

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