It was September 2005 and we trekked out of the Rongdo valley in the Nubra culminating a memorable expedition to the East Karakoram. As we gazed upwards at the Shyok river coming down the valley, a beautiful snowy peak rose above the Shyok bend. It was at that moment, we decided that someday we should climb the peak.
Seven years later and after three years of persistent applications, we finally got approval to attempt the peak. Our team consisted of Rajesh Gadgil, Aditi Gadgil, Vineeta Muni, Lt. Col. Shamsher Singh and I. The team, sponsored by the Himalayan Club reached Leh on 26 July 2012. We spent few days in preparation for the month long expedition. Approvals were finally received from the defense authorities and we were on our way to Pangong Tso along with our support staff consisting of two Sherpas, a cook and his assistant.
Our objective was located amongst the Ang Tung range of peaks in the Ku Lungpa valley. Rising northwest of Pangong Tso, the valley has not been visited by climbers due to security restrictions. We had no reference of any previous visits. Amongst the various uncertainties, the basic question of where to start the approach needed to be resolved. ‘Google Earth’ came to the rescue, and we now had two alternative approaches to choose from. We could travel on the well frequented road to Pangong Tso and start the trek at Muglib, a quaint village a few kilometres before the Pangong. Alternatively, we could continue on the road further past Pangong to Yurgo village. The route from Muglib would be interesting since it involved crossing the Ang Tung pass, used by the villagers to lead their cattle into the Ku Lungpa. The Yurgo approach appeared simpler with no apparent difficulties. We chose the latter to save time, although it required our horses to walk an additional day from Muglib to Yurgo.
An interesting perspective was the territorial issue of employment. We had hired our horses from Darbuk considering Muglib to be our starting point. The villagers of Yurgo were not happy with us employing ‘outsiders’ but were understanding when we explained to them the lack of knowledge on our part of the approach route. We promised to employ them for our return journey.
We spent two days acclimatising on the shores of the scenic PangongTso which is partly under Indian control and partly under Chinese control. The commercialisation of the place was appalling. The issues with waste management caused by thousands of visitors to campsites just metres from the shores of the lake is cause of grave concern and needs to be dealt with immediately. Although the influx of tourist is temporarily good for the local economy, the degradation of the lakeside will be detrimental for long term progress of tourism. I observed piles of non- degradable waste tucked behind lake-side restaurants and camp-sites. What happens to the human waste and other bio-degradable waste is left to imagination!!
We travelled to Yurgo for the start of our trek. We met interesting people in the village and asked them about previous visits to the mountains in the vicinity. Chaten Namgyal, 73 years, who had served in the Indian army, fought during the 1962 war and was held Prisoner of War by the Chinese, was happy and amused to see us. He, like the rest of the villagers had grazed their Yaks and sheep in the Ku Lungpa valley and had witnessed ITBP and army teams rarely patrolling the area. However, they had never seen or heard of any mountaineers operating in the valley. He hoped our expedition would open doors to other climbers and trekkers and also would give a boost to the local economy. He shared interesting facts and names of the mountains, lakes, passes and valleys of the area.
With a caravan of horses carrying about 1200 kg of ration, camping gear, ropes and technical equipment, we trekked up a well established trail into the Ku Lungpa. After a night halt en route, we established base camp at Vimgul (5210 m) on 4 August. The valley, lush green and sprinkled with countless little ponds and lakes was like a paradise on earth. Yaks, horses and sheep owned by the villagers grazed alongside the skyangs (wild ass). Marmots and Pikas ran around the campsite.
Two parties went in separate directions to explore the valley for the further route ahead. Back from the reconnaissance, we first decided to attempt P. 6130 m. This would also give us an opportunity to study P. 6414 m, our main objective. An advance base camp (ABC) was established at 5675 m on southeastern slopes of the mountain under the south face and on 9 August, we left at 7 a.m. for the climb.
L to r: Lugzl Pombo (6414 m) and Petze Kangri (6130 m). (Rajesh Gadgil)
The initial route, climbing over loose mud and rocks brought us to the base of the eastern snow and ice fields that led us to our objective. We roped up, put on crampons and enthusiastically started the climb. The slopes were fairly easy except for a few steep sections and some crevasses which we had to negotiate carefully. Vineeta Muni, Rajesh Gadgil, Lt. Col. Shamsher Singh along with Sherpas Neema Thondup, Pemba Norbu and I were on the summit at 11 a.m. We were greeted with plethora of unclimbed peaks around us and in the northeast the beautiful Koh Lungpa valley stretching for kilometres towards the mountains of Tibet and East Karakoram. We could now study and photograph further climbing objectives. Happy with our first ascent, we withdrew to base camp. As the P. 6130 m did not have any name, we decided to name it as Petze Kangri (Petze meaning baby Yak and Kangri meaning peak in local Ladakhi dialect) based on the shape of the mountain.
L to r: Unclimbed peaks P. 6290 m and P. 6401 m in Ku Lungpa. (Divyesh Muni)
After further reconnaissance from the base camp along the valley for a better perspective of the peaks we now planned to attempt, we established a high summit camp at 5850 m on a basin surrounded by peaks all around including Lugzl Pombo (6414 m) in the southwest. We were now camped on ice and did not enjoy the luxury of a cook.
Initially, the focus of the team was on a peak of about 6200 m whose icy south face rose above our camp. The face was like a giant cinema screen spread across the mountain.
On 17 August, early morning, we left eagerly for the climb. The climb did not look very difficult but just as we started up the icy slopes; the sound of shooting rocks alerted us. The first rays of the Sun had dislodged rocks of various shapes and sizes which came whistling down towards us. We reconsidered the climb since the risk of getting hit by the random rock fall was too great. Therefore we decided to shift focus to the main objective of Lugzl Pombo (6414 m) at the head of the glacier towards southwest.
This mountain is magnificent, with steep rock and ice ridges dropping in all directions. An ice wall of 150 m towards south rose just above the camp to the col between Lugzl Pombo on the west and Petze Kangri (6130 m) in the east. It was decided to climb up to the col at 6000 m and explore the possibility of finding a route up the eastern slopes of Lugzl Pombo. Almost immediately, we left camp for the climb to the col.
Ang Tung Range Sketch Map
The ice wall rose steeply, becoming vertical and then almost overhanging for the last stretch of the climb. The view from the col was stupendous. Two large gendarmes barred access to the northeast ridge. We had to find a way to bypass these two gendarmes. We gradually moved on the steep hard southeastern snow slopes above the col and were happy to see a possible line of ascending traverse that would enable us to bypass the two gendarmes. We needed additional equipment and ropes to negotiate this obstacle. Excited, like little kids, we rejoiced at the opportunity offered by the mountain and quickly made our way back to summit camp.
The following day, the summit camp was stocked with additional rations and all the necessary ropes and equipment that we had kept handy at the base camp.
Climbing route of Lugzl Pombo. (Rajesh Gadgil)
East ridge of Lugzl Pombo. (Vineeta Muni)
On 19 August, we climbed back up the fixed ropes to the col and started pushing the route past the two rock gendarmes. We traversed the first gendarme at about 6150 m at its base and moved on the steep southeastern face below the northeast ridge of the mountain. We were exposed to the risk of rock fall from the loose scree stacked on the rock gendarme.
Having climbed up the face, we crossed the second gendarme at around 6250 m. We could now see the route ahead up the northeast ridge. The exit to the summit ridge was blocked by a cornice on top of the steep northeast ridge. Whether we could find our way around the cornice or through it, we would know only when we make the final attempt. We had done our bit for the day and it was time to turn back and prepare for our summit attempt on the next day. It was tempting to attempt the summit on that day itself, but we realised that there was not sufficient time and the risk would be too much.
By now we were nearing our departure date and had only one day in hand to attempt the climb.
20 August dawned clear with a brilliant sunrise. We started off at 6 a.m. and made fast progress up the fixed ropes. By 8.30 in the morning, we were at our previous high point at the top of the second gendarme. The route up the northeast ridge was quite steep but uncomplicated. We were making slow but steady progress. Unfortunately, one of the rope coils got entangled and it took ages to sort out. We were now worried that the rope we carried would be insufficient to take us past the cornice. I was confident that once we crossed onto the final summit ridge, the terrain would ease out. As we approached the cornice, it was clear to us that we would be able to go through. A small passage allowed us to bypass the main overhanging portion of the cornice and get onto the north south summit ridge and our rope was just enough to complete this section.
We ran out of rope by the time we were past the cornice and now we could see the summit ridge stretched out before us rising towards south. The eastern side of the ridge was heavily corniced and laden with deep soft snow. On the western side was a steep drop. After some discussion, Nima quickly went down the fixed rope to a safe spot on the northeast ridge and cut a length of about 70 m of the fixed rope from bottom. We belayed him up and roped up with this rope for the final stretch to the summit. A steady and gradual climb of about five rope lengths brought Rajesh Gadgil, Nima Thondup, Pemba Norbu and me to the summit by 11.50 a.m., just ten minutes short of our pre-decided turnaround time.
Climbing east ridge of Lugzl Pombo. (Divyesh Muni)
The views were glorious and no words can express the satisfaction and joy of standing there. It was indeed a unique spot. We were on a divide...to the east we had the gentle peaks of the Tibeten plateau and to the northwest, the jagged high peaks of the Karakoram. The contrast of landscape was stunning. Towards west, we could see the mighty Shyok river deep down at the foot of our mountain. At the same time, towards north we could see the Ku Lungpa spreading out with the Ororotse Peak in the distance near its head. The hundreds of little ponds and lakes in the valley shone in the sunlight like little pearls on a green velvet carpet stretching out to the horizon. It was a dream comes true. In the northwest, we could see the peaks of Satti valley and Rongdo valley in Nubra from where this story had started.
We spent some time taking pictures and enjoying the views and thereafter quickly started our descent. We were back in our summit camp by 3 p.m., having recovered most of the fixed rope and gear on the way.
In the next three days, we wound up all our camps and were back in Leh.
The exploration of the Ku Lungpa and Ang Tung range of peaks in Ladakh by an Indian team in July – August 2012. This expedition was sponsored by the Himalayan Club.
High col reached:
Lugzl col (6000 m): Rajesh Gadgil, Vineeta Muni, Divyesh Muni, Pemba Norbu and Nima Thondup.