It is 7.00 a.m. on 5 August. Four of us, Debraj, Jyoti, Rudra and I are snuggled in the warmth of our sleeping bags at c. 6500 m in our summit camp (Camp 3). Five of our Sherpa members are also resting in an adjacent tent. It is walky-talky time with the lower camps. We had asked Camp 2 and ABC not to keep their sets open last night as it would have been difficult for us to attend to their calls during our night climb towards the summit. Debraj, who normally handled our communication, did not have the heart to break the news of our failed attempt, wherein a strong blizzard had forced us back from an altitude of c. 6865 m on the final slopes on the east ridge of Mamostong Kangri I. He passed on the walky-talky to me while still in his sleeping bag. Gautam at Camp 2 was the first to get online. I broke the news of the failed attempt. Gautam and Aditya along with Lakhpa Sherpa had left the summit camp yesterday after our aborted summit attempt on the night of 3 August. They were now ensconced at Camp 2, where our cook Lila and his assistant Phunshuk had been stationed in order to support our large summit team of six members and six Sherpas. As the weather conditions seemed uncertain, we could be forced to stay for a longer period in the higher camps. I requested Gautam to descend to ABC along with Aditya and Lakhpa, leaving the kitchen team as our support at Camp 2.
I wandered into the Sherpa’s tent to discuss with Pemba and Phurba (two of our trusted Sherpas) about their thoughts for our next attempt, after having parleyed with my deputy, Debraj. Rudra was not willing to go for another attempt and although Jyoti was willing, I was not sure about his sustenance ability for another summit attempt. In spite of being one of our fastest climbers, Jyoti, I felt had been walking too fast and had not acclimatised fully. I was not confident of my own pace too, and reckoned that I could slow down the overall progress of a fast moving team. Last night I had ascended up to c. 6855 m, my highest climb after my debilitating spine surgery in 2006. Phurba reckoned that we all could not stay here and wait for the weather to clear and hence we needed to reduce our team size at the summit camp. Thus, while it had been initially decided that Jyoti and Rudra would go down and I would stay back in support in Camp 3, with Debraj being the only climbing member for the last summit attempt, we subsequently felt that it was imperative to minimise the number of climbers stationed in Camp 3, in order to maintain sufficient food for two or three more days. I decided to go down too, leaving behind Debraj and three of the Sherpas. By 10.30 a.m., five of us were ready to leave the summit camp. I would have to monitor the climb from Camp 2.
Going down any mountain is always more dangerous than ascending it. Looking down from the upper snow field of Camp 3 towards the Thangman glacier elicited a scary view. All of the fixed rope lines (600 m) would be needed to be checked, particularly at the piton points. As per our expectation, the first ice piton had become exposed as a layer of ice had melted over the past two days. Dorjee went down first, checking all the pitons and we followed suit. Our descent had its share of hair raising moments due to randomly falling rock which whistled past us like ballistic missiles. We descended to the intermediate camp and then along the final rope line to the rocky outcrop below the intermediate camp. The glacier had opened up, Dorjee and I carefully treaded on it, supporting each other. Finally, at 1.15 p.m. we reached Camp 2, much to our relief. Phunshuk greeted us with refreshments. The final stretch to the camp had been through a crevasse strewn route. I slipped waist deep into small crevasses several times, but fortunately, these were not deep enough to bog me down. There were more surprises awaiting us at Camp 2. The lake which we had perused in the morning from the upper snowfield had now almost vanished because the crevasses in the glacier had opened up and drained out all the lake water. Ironically though, in the morning the lake had swollen up sufficiently to scare seasoned Lila and Phunshuk. They had prepared a platform in the upper portion of the glacier to shift the tent and kitchen. But to their relief and to our dismay, the lake water had now almost vanished, leaving behind a small glacier pool in its wake. Debraj informed me that they were planning on making another attempt that night itself. I indicated to him that another failed attempt would take its toll on them and hence they needed to be sure of the weather before commencing the climb. By 10.00 p.m. it was snowing heavily outside. Communication with the summit camp could not be established and we assumed that no climbing would be possible that night.
In the morning of the sixth, Debraj informed me that the weather had been bad up there too throughout the night. But the morning had ushered in a clear sky that harbingered a fresh wave of hope for me. As planned, Rudra, Jyoti, Phunshuk, Dorjee and Karma left for the lower camps at 7.30 a.m. It took five of them about an hour to reach the Mamostong col. Clouds floated in from Saser la and engulfed the climbers. However, at around 10.00 a.m. the weather started clearing up above the col and Lila saw the last member reach the top of the col. Simultaneously, Debraj came on air and informed me that the weather pattern was changing for the better. Rudra came online and said that they had safely negotiated the difficult portion of the col, much to my relief. I settled myself near a rock boulder by the side of our make-shift kitchen of stone that was draped by a tarpaulin. Looking intensely at the ever changing kaleidoscope of colours on the eastern horizon, I began reminiscing on the events that had brought us to my Mountain of a Thousand Dreams, better known as the Mountain of a Thousand Demons...
The desire to travel in the mystical and less trodden Karakoram mountains had taken deep root within me. Mamostong Kangri (7516 m) became my automatic choice. Though there was initial skepticism about being able to finance a long duration expedition in the Eastern Karakoram, we eventually convinced the Himalayan Club, Kolkata section to support our expedition to this peak for a climb in 2010 as a Silver Jubilee Commemorative Expedition – In celebration of the first ascent of 1984.
On 15 July we were at the Sasoma army base, driving from Leh over the Khardung la. After showing our permits at the post, we drove through Tulumputi la up to the 23 km mile stone, 14 km short off the supposed roadhead of Skyangpoche. We were suddenly stopped in our tracks by a violently flowing stream crossing the road. We saw a few army trucks that were also stranded on the other side. There was no possibility of crossing the stream in our small vehicles. Hoping that our mules would be present at the roadhead to take us to the base camp, we released our vehicles. Till evening no mules arrived!
Around 11.00 a.m. next morning, a tipper truck lumbered in and we loaded all our stuff and all twenty one of us climbed onto it. The truck drove across the turbulent stream and got stuck, bang in its middle! The engineer on the other side put in action the Army Bulldozer and we eventually crossed the stream after considerable drama. The route was seemingly too difficult for the truck to negotiate in it’s over laden state. Finally at the 34 km mile stone, he firmly said – ‘no further!’ The Sherpas were unhappy as we would have to ferry our entire load to the base camp.
Excerpts from the leader’s expedition log:
19 July, Base Camp:
We woke up to a clear morning. All were acclimatising well, except for Gautam and Aditya. The Sherpas constructed the chorten. Karma who is a trained Lama became its head. Everybody is in great spirits. After breakfast it was ration sorting time. In the afternoon, the Sherpas fixed a line across the cascading river for a Tyrolean traverse. They then shifted all the climbing equipment and gear across. We were visited by a team from the Army Mountaineering Institute at the Siachen base. They were looking for a suitable peak for their Advance Course students.
20 July, load ferry BC to ABC:
Gautam was still having persistent headaches. I advised him to rest one more day at BC. We started around 7.30 a.m. with members carrying their personal gear and the Sherpas ferrying the equipment. The initial route was through big boulders on the river bank leading to a green patch on a mountain ridge. The route beyond that was through scree ridden mountain slopes and then on the ridge line of the lateral moraine of the glacier. A small but fast paced mountain stream had cut a deep gully with 70° slopes falling sharply on both sides. Crossing this stream (barely ten feet wide) was a nerve wracking experience even for the experienced climbers. A route through the glacier perhaps seemed a safer option (later proved to be wrong).The latter part of the route was comparativly easy till it met the lateral moraine of one of the feeder glaciers of the Mamostong glacier, coming down from the true left of the main glacier. We traversed the glacier and climbed up the unstable moraine ridge, encountering scary crevasses and falling rock on the way. From the ridge we enjoyed a breath-taking view of the lake at our ABC. During the return, the weather turned foul and it started snowing. On reaching the Tyrolean traverse, we had a rough time crossing over to our BC. It rained throughout the night. Gautam had recovered from his persistent headaches and felt better. I reviewed with Debraj the progress for the day and planned the second load ferry for the next day.
On 21 July we made a load ferry to ABC and occupied the same on
23 July, ABC:
Camp 1 on the Mamostong glacier.
24 July, Load Ferry to Camp 1, by members and Sherpas:
From ABC, an hour and half’s walk brought us to a stream coming from the snout of a feeder glacier. It was not difficult to cross this in the morning. I went ahead alone following the cairns and old flag marks put up by the EME expedition in 2009, repairing some cairns and making some new ones in the process. It seemed to be a never ending march to Camp 1. Everyone seemed exhausted by the walk, but remained in a cheerful mood. Hope col seemed engulfed by thick clouds. The massive ridges of Mamostong were however visible. On 27 July, members did a load ferry to camp 1 and the Sherpas went ahead to open the route to camp 2. At 4.00 p.m., I made a contact with the camp 2 team. They had established camp and were on their way back. Phurba said that they had used only one coil of fixed rope on the col’s Thangman glacier side.
29 July: We contacted Phurba and he sounded discouraging about the weather conditions. He said that the weather at Camp 1 was particularly bad with incessant snowfall and poor visibility. He suggested that that they should not shift to camp 2 today. Phurba also tried to dissuade us from moving to Camp 1, but I remained firm in my resolve to move up today. We all started at about 10.00 a.m. After half an hour or so, Debabrata developed a persistent bout of coughing. Rudra and Gautam agreed to take Debabrata back to ABC. For poor Debabrata, who was an experienced climber, the expedition was thus over as he was finding it difficult to acclimatise properly. The Sherpas could not move to occupy Camp 2. The Camp 1 location was incidentally a beautiful site, situated on the medial moraine of the two feeding glaciers of the Mamostong glacier. A huge rock gave shelter to the kitchen. There were tents pitched on either side of the rock. I was yet to get a clear view of our objective as the peak seemed perpetually covered with a thick blanket of cloud.
30 July - Sherpas occupy Camp 2:
We woke up to better weather today. It was overcast but there was no snowfall and visibility was better than that of the previous day. Aditya, Debraj, Jyoti and I moved up towards the Mamostong col for an acclimatisation climb, while Rudra and Gautam moved up towards Camp 1. We walked for an hour on the medial moraine ridge that was covered with thick snow. An old flag was fluttering on top of a big rock. The col appeared frighteningly steep.
1 August - Occupy Camp 2:
Lila and Phunshuk moved fast with Jyoti following them and by 10.30 a.m. all three were on the col. The rest of us followed and on reaching the col after some steep climbing, we all harnessed and cramponed up for the sharp descent on the other side. The descent on to the Thangman side was very steep indeed and necessitated traversing downwards with utmost care. Reaching Camp 2, I found the quantity of kerosene ferried to Camp 2 was a matter of concern. Butane cartridges were also limited. The Sherpas had plans of occupying Camp 3 (summit camp) the next day and then fix ropes on the summit ridge the following day. We could then make the first summit attempt on the night of third August. But the height gain from Camp 2 (c. 5600 m) to Camp 3 (c. 6500 m) would be almost 900 m. Thus the team members desired a transit camp in between. Phurba located a potential make shift camp site at c. 6000 m. We decided to shift to the transit camp site on 2 August and occupy summit camp on 3 August.
2 August: The five of us had an uncomfortable night in the four men tent. We commenced our climb to the intermediate camp. The initial walk was easy and we crossed the glacier coming down from the south face of Mamostong Kangri I. Though the upper portion was full of hidden crevasses, we walked across cautiously without being roped up, a risky act, I realised subsequently. The gradient gradually steepened and we entered a small rocky outcrop. There was a small ice wall, where the advance team had already fixed a rope. By 11.40 a.m. we were on the top of the wall. The surroundings were not at all comforting. Along the fixed rope, there was literally no ledge space that was broad enough to fit our ‘four man’ tent comfortably. We had to somehow make do for the night!
3 August: Our Sherpa team had already fixed three coils of rope - nearly 600 m of fixed rope on the steep rock and ice face connecting to the enormous upper icefield at the base of the east ridge. We negotiated the ice wall but not without our share of tense moments. There was a stream of rock fragments flying in towards us whilst Jyoti was traversing a rock band. The last couple of stretches on the rope had been severely tiring too. We could see three Sherpas of our advance team already on the east ridge, fixing ropes for the summit attempt. They were ready to go for a summit attempt the same night. I decided that Debraj, Gautam and I would go for the first summit attempt with the Sherpas that night at 10.00 p.m. As we got ready to leave, we realised that it had been snowing silently but heavily. We thus decided against leaving that night. We felt severely overcrowded in the tent!
4 August - night attempt:
We woke up to gloomy surroundings. The weather was still poor with low visibility. I woke up the team at 10.00 p.m. There were no stars in the sky which was evidently overcast. We carried one pack of assorted toffees each, along with spare socks, mittens, wind proof jackets and water. By 11.00 p.m we were ready and thus by 11.15 p.m., nine of us were on the move. Phurba was leading, followed by Debraj and Jyoti, then Dawa followed by Rudra and myself. Pemba, Dorjee and Lakhpa brought up the rear. We were a well contained team of four climbers and five Sherpas. Visibility was poor and not much could be seen beyond the arcs of our head lamps. All old foot prints were covered, much to our dismay. It would be a two hour climb to the start of fixed ropes. After walking for about forty five minutes or so, Jyoti descended back to summit camp. Soon enough a strong wind started bellowing and fresh snowfall commenced. We persevered nevertheless. By 1.00 a.m., we reached the fixed rope commencement point. The snowfall soon turned into a blizzard that became fairly intense. Were the Mamostong Demons up to their tricks? My fingers were feeling numb. The powder snow was sticking to the gloves making them wet. The blizzard gained further momentum. Phurba said that there was nothing to worry as the snowfall was accompanied by wind and hence was expected to stop after a while. I however felt that if we were to continue for a few more hours and the situation aggravated further, we would have to abandon the attempt and may not have enough energy left for a subsequent try the next day. Hence I suggested we all return and await better weather conditions before another attempt. But we continued for another hour. The gradient was between 45° to 60°. By this time the powder snow deposits on my gloves had started to seriously chill my fingers. Rudra too, was also not feeling comfortable continuing in this weather. Standing alongside the edge of a deep crevasse I attempted to climb a wall on the other side. My numb hands could not pull me over the wall with the jumar. Pemba supported me. It was close to 3.00 a.m. and we had climbed over c. 6800 m as per the GPS.
There seemed no sign of improvement in the weather. I called Debraj and told him that my hands were feeling numb and Rudra too was not feeling well, and hence we would go down to Camp 3. I asked them to continue for some more time. We unclipped our jumars and started moving down on the fixed rope. It became difficult to keep one’s eyes open. We now realised to our horror that the snowfall had obliterated our boot tracks totally. With no visibility beyond the arcs of our head lamps, we felt stranded on the narrow ridge, unsure of which direction to take. A wrong step to the left would take us to the corniced edge of the ridge, while one to the right would lead to the ice fall below. Suddenly Rudra noticed the descending lights of the climbers who were above us. Within minutes they were with us. Moving un-roped would have been suicidal. Phurba took out a climbing rope and we all roped up closely and using his amazing Sherpa instincts, he led us down to camp.
The brightness of 6 August morning suddenly broke my reverie. I looked around and found that the clouds had moved away. At 2 p.m., I made contact with Debraj to enquire about what was happening up there. All four of them were fine - the sky had by now cleared up sufficiently, save for the usual clouds atop Mamostong Kangri. It was at 3.30 p.m. I looked up towards the eastern sky around Aq Tash and Saser la. A fresh wave of white clouds was gathering over them. But Mamostong Kangri was still bereft of any cloud cover. At 6.00 p.m. when I called Debraj, he said that weather had begun deteriorating in the vicinity of the summit camp. Depending on the weather position, they would plan for an early start tonight. Their food supplies were rapidly dwindling. If they fail tonight they would have to descend tomorrow. It started snowing at camp 2 and I realised that the weather must have deteriorated up at the summit camp too.
Above large crevasse on the route to the top.
Mamostong glacier from the summit area.
Originally 7 August was the date that we would make the final ascent. I woke up from my slumber at 5.00 a.m. and crossing my fingers I looked outside the tent towards the sky. It was still overcast. The snowfall at camp 2 however had stopped around midnight. I hoped that they would have started their attempt after that. I made plans to send more food to camp 3. At 6.30 a.m. I switched on the walky-talky set. It was Debraj whose voice crackled through the thin air. His voice was indistinct. He said that they had crossed four fixed rope lengths on the east ridge, but the weather was still unsettled up there. At around 7.50 a.m., Debraj said that they were merely 250 m vertically below the summit. The sky had cleared by then. Clouds kept playing hide and seek with the upper sections of the mountain. By 10.00am the mountain was again engulfed by thick clouds.
Final summit ridge.
It was perhaps our persistence and determination to succeed on a commemorative expedition, in spite of the many adversities we faced right through the expedition, which seemed to have paid off eventually, with the blessings of the mountain gods and perhaps the benevolence of the thousand demons of the Mamostong!
Team members: Pradeep Chandra Sahoo (leader), Aditya Gupta, Debabrata Ghosh, Debraj Dutta, (deputy leader and summiter), Gautam Saha, Jyoti Ghosh, Rudra Prasad Haldar and Shibnath Basu. Sherpas: Pemba Sherpa (summiter), Phurba Sherpa (summiter), Dawa Wanchuk Sherpa (summiter), Dorjee Sherpa, Karma Thilay Sherpa, Lakpa Tenzing Sherpa and Lila Raj Rai (cook).
The expedition is dedicated to Col. Balwant Sandhu (See details of his first ascent of Mamostong Kangri in HJ vol.43, p.93)
An ascent of Mamostong Kangri (7516 m) in the Eastern Karakoram by the Himalayan Club, Kolkata section team.
Advance base camp.
Aq Tash (7016 m).
Glacial lake, Camp 2.
South face of Mamostong Kangri.