In the Shadow of the Elephant

An account of the 2012 Alpine Club Expedition to the Semartoli Valley

Derek R Buckle

Initially we had intended to visit eastern Spiti but a combination of large team size, inappropriate timing and border sensitivities eventually necessitated a change of plan. The new venue that we chose was the Semartoli valley, south of the popular Valley of Flowers and hemmed in by the Himalayan giants Hathi Parvat (Elephant peak, 6727 m) and Ghori Parvat (Mare peak, 6708 m), which dominate the horizon on the road to Joshimath. At the head of the valley, lesser, but nonetheless impressive peaks, such as Barmal (5879 m), Oti ka Danda (5782 m) and P. 5855 m, now believed to be Danesh Parvat, form the skyline. It was one or more of these 5000 m peaks that we hoped to climb from a base camp at Raj kharak, which at 3810 m was just below the well-defined lateral moraines of the Semartoli glacier. Once again we are indebted to Harish Kapadia who suggested the alternative venue and was a member of the 2007 joint Alpine Club - Himalayan Club expedition to the area to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the AC1. Photos of the area were gratefully provided by Dave Wynne-Jones, who was also an active member on the 2007 expedition, although they failed to prepare us for the complexity of the subsidiary ridges and peaks that we were to encounter on closer inspection.

The trek to base camp began at the Sikh pilgrim centre of Govind Ghat on 19 September. After initially following the pilgrim route on a well-made paved track leading to the holy lake at Hemkund, we finally left the crowds at Bhuidhar when we made the first night’s camp just beyond the village. The second day seemed remarkably short, prompted perhaps by the extensive ganja2 fields at Kargila kharak, but the lost time was recovered on a third long day when base camp was finally established by the Semartoli river at Raj kharak.

Exploration of the upper reaches of the Semartoli glacier:
The 2007 joint AC-HC expedition took place in June, much earlier in the year than the time of our visit, and the seasonal transformation was marked. Instead of the expected extended snowfields we were
confronted with boulder-strewn bare glaciers extending to well above the position eventually chosen for our advanced base camp. Following the prominent true left lateral moraine, however, it was relatively easy to avoid the major difficulties of this boulder- field and this led conveniently to a small stone- free platform at 4505 m in full view of the west face of Oti ka Danda and the northwest face of Barmal. From here a three hour ascent of the glacier led to a prominent cairned col at 5008 m that offered a clear indication of the challenges to be faced should we press on with an attempt on Barmal. In particular, the ramp line envisaged from available photographs was evidently more technical than we had hoped and did not appear achievable given the lack of obvious bivi sites on the face and the tendency of the weather to deteriorate at variable times early in the afternoon. A unanimous decision was taken to look for simpler objectives.

Northwest face of Barmal. (Derek Buckle)

Northwest face of Barmal. (Derek Buckle)

There are only two reported ascents of the peaks either side of the Kankul khal; P. 5087 m and P. 5028 m, both having been made by the 2007 joint AC-HC expedition, yet this sub range comprises a complex cluster of interesting peaks. Having observed a possible access to what appeared to be the highest peak, that closest to Barmal itself, this became our first objective. On 25 September therefore, Mike Cocker, Stuart Worsfold, Paul Padman and I followed the now broken true left lateral moraine of the Semartoli glacier above ABC until gaining a steep, unstable rocky gully on the right. A continuation of this gully gave way to easier mixed ground on the northeast face and eventually exited at a snowy col and the start of the airy north ridge. A little over five hours after leaving camp we arrived at the 5301 m compact summit which we have tentatively called ‘Kagbhusandi Parvat’ on account of its prominent position at the head of the adjacent Kagbhusandi valley. We graded the route Alpine PD+. Deteriorating visibility denied us the expected panoramic views, but Mike Pinney and John Kentish, the second ascentionists two days later, were more fortunate.

Unwilling to leave ABC without a closer look at either Oti ka Danda or Barmal, Mike Cocker and I crossed to the snow-filled couloir to the east of camp on 27 September in the hope that this might provide a better perspective, or even access, to the higher summits. After crossing the bergschrund the couloir gradually steepened from around 40° to 60°, but at least it appeared objectively safe. Instead of leading to the anticipated snowy col, however, exit from the couloir was capped by an extensive rock buttress. One full and exciting rope-length up this was sufficient to convince us that we were getting onto difficult, unstable ground so at around 5400 m we reluctantly made one abseil back to the snow before continuing the descent to ABC. The down-climbing was slow but uneventful until just below the bergschrund when several large boulders scoured the icy constriction where we had so recently been. If any further vindication of our decision to retreat was needed it came in the form of decreasing visibility and a prolonged hail/snow storm that began just as we arrived at ABC almost 12 hours after leaving.

North ridge of P. 5855 m. (Derek Buckle)

North ridge of P. 5855 m. (Derek Buckle)

John Kentish on north ridge of P. 5515 m. (Derek Buckle)

John Kentish on north ridge of P. 5515 m. (Derek Buckle)

The following day we dismantled ABC and returned to BC for rest and to plan the next objectives.

Exploration of the glacier system to the north of Oti ka Danda:
From available photographs several climbing opportunities were known to exist to the north of Oti ka Danda, although once again we were only able to rationalise the complex topography on closer inspection. Thus, on 30 September, a decision was made to follow the true right ablation valley of the Semartoli glacier with the aim of eventually establishing a high camp on the broken glacier descending from the south ridge of Hathi Parvat. The 2007 Expedition is believed to have followed a similar route to a steep rocky peak at 5379 m that they believed to be Danesh Parvat. Impressive though this peak is, we now believe that this is actually a hitherto unnamed peak while Danesh Parvat is the major 5855 m peak further south.

With the help of several of our Sherpas and our liaison officer, Anurag Singh, Mike Cocker, Mike Pinney, John Kentish and I set up an intermediate camp by a small glacial lake at 4286 m. From here we easily gained the highly crevassed glacier which was then ascended to a small plateau above a rognon at 5010 m where we established a high camp. This camp afforded extensive and impressive views, particularly of the peaks either side of the Kankul khal. Two of our Sherpas, Dawa and Migma, both veterans of Everest, were of considerable help in setting up this camp and remained to help us dismantle it when we were due to leave.

The morning of 2 October was bright and clear when we left as a rope of four to climb the broken glacier, keeping as far to the right as possible to avoid the worst of the crevasses. After passing one steep couloir on the right we traversed under a rocky buttress until a second more amenable couloir (30-45°) gave access to a snowy col.

Derek Buckle on summit ridge of P. 5515 m. (John Kentish)

Derek Buckle on summit ridge of P. 5515 m. (John Kentish)

Moving right from here we then ascended the narrow north ridge of the neighbouring peak (the buttress under which we had traversed) to make the first ascent of the prominent 5515 m compact, rocky summit (Alpine AD). There was no straightforward route to P. 5855 m from this point so after the obligatory photo shoot we returned to camp via the route of ascent. Later that afternoon we were again assailed by heavy snowfall so any thoughts of further exploration of the alternative couloir were immediately abandoned. The following day we descended back to base camp.

Exploration of unclimbed peaks south of the Kankul khal:
While four of us were exploring the glacier descending from Hathi Parvat, Stuart Worsfold, Jo Campbell and Paul Padman chose to investigate the valley leading southwest from near the top of the true left lateral moraine of the Semartoli glacier in the hope of climbing one or more of the peaks close to Kagbhusandi Parvat. Having established a camp at 4538 m on 30 September they left the following day to ascend a boulder-field before crossing a small glacier to a prominent couloir comprising a combination of silt, boulders and snow. After climbing this they emerged at a significant col where they turned left to climb a slabby, mostly snow-covered face to make the first ascent of P. 5210 m (Alpine PD) which gave extensive views of Barmal and Oti ka Danda and beyond. They returned the same way and descended to BC on 2 October.

After an abortive exploration of the valley due west of base camp, Stuart and Mike Pinney planned to visit the Kankul khal with a view to climbing another of the peaks in close proximity to Kagbhusandi Parvat. Thus on 7 October they crossed the Kankul khal starting from a camp a little below the col at 4600 m before traversing left (south) to continue on a rising traverse across a glacier to join the northwest flank of P. 5120 m. The easy but overhanging north ridge was then followed to make the first ascent of the rocky summit (Alpine PD-). They descended the same way returning all the way to base camp.

With our time in the Semartoli almost complete we chose to return to Joshimath by way of the Kankul khal and the Pharswan Binaik. This route is far from straightforward even though it passes the holy Kankul tal, a popular site of pilgrimage. Nevertheless, scenically it is markedly different from the route that we used to base camp and provided a wider perspective of the regional geography. It is worth noting that while many valleys appear to offer viable descent routes to Joshimath these mostly lead to steep, impassable gorges in their lower reaches and the only safe descent passes Jabri kharak and the small hamlet of Payia.


Derek Buckle (leader), Joanna Campbell, Mike Cocker, John Kentish, Paul Padman, Mike Pinney, Stuart Worsfold. Another Alpine Club member, John Temple, trekked with the team in the early stages.

In September – October 2012 seven members of the Alpine Club visited the upper reaches of the Semartoli glacier in the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalaya. In addition to general exploration they successfully made first ascents of four summits; P. 5301 m (PD+ tentatively called Kagbhusandi Parvat), P. 5210 m (PD), P. 5120 m (PD-) and P. 5515 m (AD).


  1. D. Wynne-Jones, Alpine Journal, 113, 167-173 (2008); HJ Vol. 63, p. 106.
  2. Canabis

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