We were a modest group of four climbers: three Canadians from Golden British Columbia, (Dr. Jeff Dolinsky and his wife Joan and me) and one American from Bishop, CA (Andy Selters). We were accompanied by climbers Kunzang Sherpa (Sirdar), Arvind Raman (LO), two climbing staff Da Nuru Sherpa (Dawa) and Nangang Bhote, and three staff: Raj Kumar Rai, Mu Gombu Rai and Chamu Singh.
Our climbing objectives were located at the head of a beautiful and remote valley called Rongdo in the Nubra area of Ladakh, lying between the east and west arms of the Shyok river and north of the Indus. Tom Longstaff travelled close to what is Rongdo village today, while exploring the Siachen glacier and Saltoro areas in 1909. It gave me quite a thrill to look across the lovely, wide meandering Shyok and imagine Longstaff moving slowly up the opposite bank on his way north – to be so close to his footsteps!
Unclimbed peaks east of Rongdo I. (Joie Seagram)
I initially called the four peaks (all just over 6000 m) forming the natural cirque, Rongdo I to IV, but we have since applied local names indicative of Tibetan culture which forms the foundation of Ladakhi society.
Upon arrival in Leh (3500 m) on 31 July 2012, over the next few days we went through the usual acclimatisation routines and busied ourselves with last minute preparations. Despite following this routine, Jeff developed a serious case of pulmonary edema requiring him to spend the better part of three days with an oxygen tank. Jeff and Joan remained in Leh an extra five days for acclimatisation.
While Jeff and Joan remained in Leh, Andy, I and our support staff proceeded by jeep to cross the Khardung la and made our way over the mighty Shyok river to Rongdo village (3000 m). All was well in charming Rongdo (a dozen dwellings) except for one minor problem – a shortage of horses and attendant pony-men to transport our loads up the valley! Most villagers and valley folk were engaged with a visit by the Dalai Lama in Leh, while the remaining friendly locals appeared quite perplexed by our presence indeed, being unaccustomed to seeing tourists in Rongdo. A few quick calls to Leh and six horses were arranged to be sent over the Kardung la in the morning – I was horrified! How could any beast would survive such a long and circuitous mountain journey? Nonetheless, six horses arrived next morning, looking healthier than most of us. These six, in addition to a few scattered local horses and ponies along with the odd donkey, made our domestic hauling team complete.
On 05 August we slowly began our walk up Rongdo valley heading northeast, following the south side of Rongdo river. It was truly a joyous experience. Over five days we wandered past ancient stone dwellings and eroding Buddhist chortens and stupas, well-tended barley fields alongside rich potato patches, finally culminating in a visit to the well-preserved Rongdo Gompa – a small Tibetan Buddhist monastery located in this very remote valley for well over 100 years. Most astonishing to witness as we wandered along, were the gigantic (hundreds of metres high) solid looking walls jutting up both sides of the valley – a rock climber’s paradise (indelibly added to ‘the list’). In addition, the understated beauty of dry valley hillsides dotted with sprays of green, and scattered with healthy dzo’s unfolded before us, while steep snow clad peaks towered in the backdrop.
We continued to be intrigued and deeply touched by our encounters with the local herdsmen and farmers of Rongdo valley. They in turn seemed to share our curiosity and mutual comfort with strangers. Andy’s advanced linguistic skills proved to be invaluable in helping everybody communicate and enjoy each other, for we were as foreign to the Ladakhis as they were to us. Rongdo has seen virtually no tourism, save one Indian-American climbing team in 20051 which descended the valley in two days, from the Satti area due north of Rongdo valley.
Upon reaching the head of the valley we pushed onward to establish base camp (4802 m) on 10 August, on a comfortable green area with handy water and ample feed for our hard-working horses. Over the next few days we explored higher, trending southeasterly toward the cirque in search of a suitable advanced base camp. Our focal point was a large glacial lake draining the unnamed glacier around which Rongdo peaks I to IV are situated. I was relieved when we eventually found this lake (just where the map indicated), as sly comments were beginning to surface like ‘there’s a lake‘ with group members smiling and pointing to tiny tarns! With my credibility restored, we all looked down from huge boulders, in silent askance at the vast lead-grey liquid expanse – all feeling the same awe and incredulity – nobody had stood by this lake before (to the best of our knowledge). Talk about bonding!
By late afternoon on 14 August we happened upon a perfect green patch just below our main climbing objective Ngapo Kangri or Rongdo I (6350 m), which we designated ABC (5181 m). From this glorious grass-covered camp, suitable for casual football and frisbee, we could see the unnamed glacier and cirque with the Rongdo peaks (Rongdo I to IV moving clockwise). After briefly resting and relishing in our find, we returned to BC to behold yet more good news. Upon arrival we could see small specks in the distance moving slowly up the trail from the valley below. It could only be Jeff and Joan making their debut! How exciting for everybody, as we had all quietly begun to see ourselves as a much smaller group. We had no way of knowing whether they would make the journey or not. Now, we were complete.
After several reconnaissance trips around Ngapo Kangri, and up the main glacier to view the cirque of Rongdo peaks, on 18 August Andy, Jeff and Joan, Kunzang, Dawa, Nangang, Arvind and Gombu climbed the west sub-summit (6000 m) of Balden Lhamo (Rongdo III) via the col between Rongdo III and Rongdo IV, then up the southwest ridge (10 hours return). I took a rest day after recceing the northwesterly slopes of Ngapo over the two previous days to 6000 m. Climbers returned tired from Balden Lhamo and after a tasty dinner retired early.
19 August brought a minor set-back as it became clear throughout the morning that Andy was unfortunately suffering from a minor case of cerebral edema, probably due to dehydration and overexertion the day before. He had spent an especially hard day making steps in deep snow and staying in front most of the day above the glacier. After careful observation and discussion through the day, at 4.00 p.m. Andy finally agreed that he was indeed experiencing cerebral edema, and he and I descended with Raj and Nangang to BC. After two hours at the lower elevation and oxygen at 4L per min, Andy’s appetite returned and he felt 100% better! Patience, communication and determination to be preventative, had indeed helped to avoid a more serious problem Andy has wide Himalayan experience and this can make it difficult for anyone to understand why, at a relatively lower elevation one should get sick.
Nearing the summit of P. 6160 m (Gazgazri). (Andy Selters)
P. 6160 m showing west and south faces. (Joie Seagram)
On 22 August Jeff and Joan, Kunzang, Dawa, Nangang, and Arvind climbed Chamba (6170 m) or Rongdo II via the southeast glacier (10 hours return). On 23 August Nangang and I climbed the upper west rock ridge of Ngapo Kangri to 60 odd m below the corniced summit (12 hours return). At the same time Andy and Arvind ascended Ngapo Kangri via the southerly slopes; first on talus and rock ledges, then up the avalanche prone southeast aspect to easier angled summit slopes, finally gaining the corniced summit (14 hours return).
On 27 August Kunzang, Dawa, Arvind and I headed up the main glacier to attempt the true summit of Balden Lhamo (6120 m); high camp on the glacier at 5690 m. An early departure next morning got us up the icy headwall to the col (6060 m) by 09.00 a.m., where the steep west ridge curves south to become the long exposed summit ridge. We deliberated in the chilly col and decided finally, disappointed, to retreat in the face of poor weather and more technical ice than we were prepared to climb. On 29 August Andy and Nangang left a high camp at 5181 m, several km northeast of our ABC, to climb Gazgazri or P. 6160 m. They ascended the southwest ridge, then traversed onto the icy south face, after which several short pitches the last being up to 70 degree hard ice, led them to a ledge at the edge of the summit dome, whence they ascended to the highest point. Descent was via the west face (14 hours return to BC).
On 30 August we awoke to chilly temperatures, steel grey skies and several cms of snow. It was regrettably; time to leave our magic hidden playground. By 31 August we were all ensconced at BC looking forward to the evening’s Full Moon celebration. We enjoyed a close and memorable time singing freely together around a huge dung fire – a well-harmonised international climbing group! Next day we began our descent in the long enchanting valley, taking two days to arrive back at Rongdo village.
As we savoured our journey and modest climbing achievements together over our last delectable dinner in Rongdo village, we had a collective sense of pure amazement. That we had had the incredible fortune to spend a month in an untouched valley, climbing unclimbed peaks, and reliving our childhoods – such was our freedom of the hills…
Exploration and climbs in the Rongdo valley of Ladakh by a Canadian- American team during August 2012.