A team of 12 mountaineers from the Indian Air Force explored the little known Rongdo valley in May – June 2013. This valley has seen only two forays in the past. The team spent 35 days in the valley, explored the main and major side valleys and, climbed seven virgin peaks and attempted one more in the area.
Rongdo Lungpa is a small stream originating in the glacial mass of East Karakoram north of the Shyok river in the Nubra region. The Rongdo village is located at the mouth of the stream and is 35 km from the bridge across the Shyok at Timur and 52 km from Hunder. Satti, a larger village with a primary health care centre, is its nearest neighbour and is located 20 km away to its west and is connected to it by a dirt track.
For the sake of easy description, the Rongdo valley can be divided into 2 parts: the lower and upper Rongdo valleys. The lower Rongdo valley extends from the junction where the Rongdo Lungpa meets Shyok river just below the location of the Hot Springs. The former also corresponds to the location of the Rongdo village and the latter to the place where Tara Tokpo from the south and Koyak Lungpa from the north join a stream Sakskyulas Tokpo coming from northeast to form Rongdo Lungpa. This marks the general upper limit of the summer grazing area of the Rongdo villages. Upper Rongdo comprises of the Sagtogpa glacier from which two streams originate and join to form Sakskyulas. There are eight side valleys on the true left side and four on the right. The valleys are referred to by the side on which they are located and numerically starting from the head of the valley. In upper Rongdo, there are three side valleys. All others are in lower Rongdo.
Base camp at the mouth of Tiburchan valley. (IAF 2013 Expedition)
Immediately beyond Rongdo village, the valley narrows due to a large rockfall on the true right side. The trail is about one m wide in lower Rongdo and used for regular movement of people, cattle and flocks of sheep moving up and down the valley. 500 m beyond the village, the trail starts climbing and snakes up the right side of the valley. It ascends steeply for about 400 m and then descends more gently to a small clearing with many trees and brooks running through it called Changma (c. 3830 m). From Changma the trail goes up and down scree on the left side of the valley till you reach Thipti 20 min away. The trail stays to the right of a clump of willow trees with some pasture land enclosed by a fence of thorny branches. A small adobe hut perched on a huge rock within the enclosure cannot be missed. Doksa c. 4030 m is an hour’s walk from Thipti. Here the valley widens considerably. Rongdo Lungpa runs along the right side of the valley and to its left is a large meadow which has now been brought under plough and serves as arable land for Rongdo villagers. Numerous rivulets coming down from glacial melts high up on the north of the valley serve as convenient irrigation channels. Beyond Doksa, the valley remains wide all the way up to the confluence of the Rongdo Lungpa with the stream coming down from the second valley on the left. This valley is called Chudon nangma which can be translated as ‘hot water’ valley. This refers to the hot springs located to the east of the confluence of the two streams. Nangma is the Ladakhi word for a big valley. This valley is also known as Chhurn nangma. The expansive meadows here make good grazing and camping grounds.
On the way up the main valley, we followed the Sakskyulas Tokpo further up to where a tributary from the first eastern valley on the right (R1) joins it. We crossed this stream and set up our first base camp- BC 1 (c. 4790 m) on a meadow to the left of this tributary. This site is a 45 minute walk from the hot springs. A broad peak is visible to the true right of the main valley just as you approach the base camp. The peak, like a truncated pyramid, was our first objective. A reconnaissance trek up the main valley showed that this peak is part of a massif that extends along the right side of the upper Rongdo valley all the way up to the head of the valley. The steep face, ice overhangs and cornices that were visible on the western aspect of the mountain made it clear that it could not be climbed from the main valley side (i.e., east face). Moreover the scree and large boulders at its base made going up the valley difficult. Two streams come down from the Sagtogpa glacier at the head of the main valley. The right stream begins at the foot of the Ngapo (Rongdo I), a 6350 m peak and flows below the terminal moraine blocking the entrance to the first side valley on the left. This valley was explored by a Canadian expedition in 20121. This is a broad valley and has many peaks above 6000 m hedging it. There is a cirque at the head of the valley now named Canadian cirque. In mid-May, upper Rongdo was still draped in snow. The snow over the boulders made the going difficult and we had to walk along the streams to reach the head of the valley. After the initial reconnaissance, we turned our attention to Theorchung lungpa. We climbed up the ridge on the true left of the valley and followed the ridgeline. There are many cairns on this ridge erected by shepherds and the valley is thus called Theorchung lungpa (Tiburchan valley in Survey of India maps). ‘Theor’ is the Ladakhi word for cairn and lungpa is the word for a narrow valley / river. It takes three hours to reach the head of the valley where we established our advance base camp (ABC 1) (c. 5305 m). Half a km ahead to the northwest was a cirque which separates this valley from a glacier referred to in the Survey of India map as the Lung Tung glacier. There are two cols on this cirque, one to the southwest and the other to its north. Just beyond the ABC and to its northeast was a big glacier. This glacier, we discovered, goes along the northwestern aspect of the mountain that we wanted to climb. It is possible to go along the glacier and reach the head of the Rongdo valley. A route up the mountain was discovered from its western aspect along a southwest ridge which started just beyond our ABC. An attempt of the peak was made on 18 May 2013. The route up took six hours. After the first hour of climbing, we found the snow firm enough to use crampons. The route followed a north-easterly course. After another three hours of climbing, the slope became rocky and we had to take off the crampons. The last 50 m was like a tongue, a flat but steep slope. The peak had a two m cornice on the eastern side and we had to be careful not to step too close to the edge. On the way down, the right border of the tongue gave way and crashed down into the valley below. The ice on the track cracked and sank and we had to hurry across. This peak was named Sa’i Lhamo which is the Tibetan term for the Earth Goddess (c. 6030 m).
A team of three experienced mountaineers crossed the head of Tiburchan glacier and set up a summit camp to the north of a peak whose spot height on the map was 6160 m. This peak is located to the northeast of the head of Tiburchan glacier. A cirque located to the southeast of this peak and across the head of the glacier separates Tiburchan glacier from Koyak and Lung Tung glaciers. The cirque continues northwards across the head of the glacier, encircles the peak and then extends in a south-easterly direction separating the head of the Rongdo valley from Southeast Shukpa Kunchang glacier. The summit camp was a four hour walk from the ABC. Peak 6160 was attempted on 21 May 2013. A blizzard and poor visibility almost made the team sit out of the attempt. However they set out at 05.30 a.m. after the blizzard showed signs of abating. They took the northwest ridge up. The gradient was 45 o but the snow firm and good for climbing. After three hours they reached 5990m. They had to then turn back as the weather deteriorated and fixing a rope for further climbing seemed unfeasible. This peak was named Lungkhor Kangri in view of the glacier encircling it.
Lung Khor (Gazgazri) peak. (IAF 2013 Expedition)
Odgsal massif from Shan Lungpa glacier. Odgsal II (right) and Odgsal I (behind left) with Odgsal col in between. (IAF 2013 Expedition)
Both summit teams returned to base camp and the entire group moved up the main valley. From the base camp the trail climbs steeply northwards for 20 minutes. On our way up this was still covered with a foot of snow. After a 2 h walk, keeping to the right side of the Sakskyulas, we ascended steeply for 15 minutes. This brought us to a small meadow directly opposite the mouth of the valley explored by the Canadians. We established our new base camp- BC 2 here (c. 5170 m). The aim was to explore and climb in the upper reaches of the main valley. A recce team crossed Sakskyulas just below the base camp, skirted the terminal moraine of the Canadian valley and then followed the rivulet coming down from the left side of the main valley. Keeping to the right of this rivulet, they ascended a medial moraine and got a glimpse of the Southeast Shukpa Kunchang glacier at the head of the valley. There was another glacier coming from the east between Ngapo Kangri and a pyramidal peak to the left of the Southeast Shukpa Kunchang glacier. This probably is the Sagtogpa glacier arising from the Kunzang group of peaks located to the north east. A branch of the Sagtogpa glacier then swings south into the Rongdo valley. To the right of the Southeast Shukpa Kunchang glacier was a massif running in an east – west direction. This was separated from the Sa’i Lhamo massif by the Lungkhor glacier. The peak on the massif to the right of the Southeast Shukpa Kunchang glacier was the next target. To reach its base a summit team followed a rivulet coming from the right edge of the valley. After one and half hours they ascended steeply up the glacier at the head of the valley, keeping to the right edge of the valley all along. Then they crossed the Lungkhor glacier coming eastwards from R1 and established a summit camp at 5670 m below the peak marked as 6100 m on the map. The trek up to the summit camp took five hours. Hot sun and the fierce glare from the glaciers made it tedious. The team left for the summit at 03.30 a.m. on 25 May 13. The sky was overcast but there was no wind. The snow was crisp and firm. The team walked west parallel to the massif. After 45 minutes, they climbed up a ridge jutting southwards at right angles from the main massif. This brought them to the northern face of the mountain. From here it was a steep climb to the ridgeline of the main massif. The snow was firm and crampons made climbing easy. Once the ridgeline was reached, the snow thinned out and flaky rocks appeared. The gradient was less steep now and the climb continued in an easterly direction. The promise of a rose pink dawn was thwarted by clouds crowding in and a stinging blizzard. The team reached the summit at 07.02 a.m. (6183 m). This peak was named Khyung Kangri as it resembled the mythological Garuda2 guarding the head of the Rongdo valley with its wings spread out. Khyung is the Tibetan word for Garuda. The massif is actually L – shaped and extends west – east along the glacier coming from R1 and then south – north along the right side of the Southeast Shukpa Kunchang glacier. The deteriorating weather made the team scurry back to summit camp and then further down to ABC the same day. The second summit team left ABC for the summit camp the same day. They planned to attempt a peak to the northwest of Khyung Kangri. They left summit camp at 03.15 a.m. but had to stop soon because of strong winds and heavy snow fall. After an hour they resumed their climb. They followed the same trail that the first team had taken the previous day. After crossing the ridge extending southwards from the Khyung Kangri massif they descended to a heavily crevassed area and had to rope up. They went in a northerly direction up a gully which went up the summit ridge located to the east. The snow was firm and they climbed using the three-point technique. After 200 m ascent, the route became rocky. They climbed a hump and could see the summit another 200 m above. A rope was fixed for 50 m as the gradient was 60° and the peak was summited at 06.17 a.m. This peak was named as Chu Skeyes Kangri (Chu Skeyes - lotus in Tibetan c. 6053 m). The team returned to summit camp at 08.00 a.m. and after a quick breakfast, decided to take advantage of the lull in the weather and attempt another peak nearby. The peak they selected was located to the southwest of the summit camp and was on a north easterly flank of Sa’i Lhamo. The team took half an hour to reach the base of the peak and climbed it from an easterly spur. The team of six members reached the summit after two hours of climbing. This peak with its elongated easterly spur resembled the head of an elephant and was therefore named Langpoche (Langpoche - elephant head in Tibetan, c. 5969 m). The team then returned to the advanced base camp the same afternoon after a gruelling but extremely satisfying climb.
From the base of Khyung kangri looking east (R to L) Ngapo Kangri, Sagtogpa glacier, Pyramidal peak and Southeast Shupka Kunchang glacier. (IAF 2013 Expedition)
Head of Chhurn Nangma valley with Island peak in the middle and Odgsal massif to the right. (IAF 2013 Expedition)
The next plan was to go up the main valley cross the Sagtogpa glacier, explore southeast Shukpa Kunchang glacier and climb the pyramidal peak between this and the Sagtogpa glaciers. However, the weather played foul. It snowed incessantly for three days. On the fourth day when there was a break in the weather we decided to descend to hot springs. The fresh snowfall had made climbing risky. We saw avalanches slithering down the peaks in the Canadian valley. Our attention now turned towards the Chudon nangma (Chhurn nangma in Survey of India maps) and the side valley further south.
After savouring the salubrious environs of the hot springs camp, a reconnaissance of the valley was done. It is a three hour walk on the left side of the valley till the valley closes in with a spur on the left side and rocky scree on the right. Two streams originate from the two sides and soon join up to form the river which we had followed up. The river was frozen at that time, covered by a thick icy layer about one m thick. We could hear the water roaring under it and the ice cracking in places, all intimations that summer was well underway. A group of four tried climbing up the spur on the left. There were two peaks above the spur which looked challenging. On going up the spur, they discovered a cwm there but the ice wall to the southeast and hanging glaciers made it too risky to climb from this side. Later we would discover that the best route up these peaks would be from the east across the glacier feeding the Chhurn nangma. Another team climbed up the rocky scree on the right side of the valley. From the top of the scree, a rock face was visible and a trail could be seen skirting the slope of the ridge to the right of the valley. A further scouting trip up this side revealed that after a two-and-half-hour walk, the valley suddenly widened and a huge glacial lake dammed by the rock face existed. This glacial lake is formed by the glacial melt of the Shan Lung glacier which lies like a crescent above the valley and to its south (Shan - snow leopard in Ladakhi), referring to the fact that we saw pug marks of the snow leopard all the way across the glacier. Straight ahead to the east was a big massif. A branch of the Shan Lung glacier swept northwards along the base of the massif and continued northwards east of the Canadian cirque. North of this massif was another glacier running in an east west direction and joining the Shan Lung glacier at the base of the massif. In the middle of this glacier was a solitary peak (Island peak) which looked interesting. But our first challenge was the big massif dominating the Shan Lung glacier. To climb this massif we established a new ABC 3 (c. 5305 m) just ahead of the rock face and on the banks of the glacial lake. From here, the route went eastwards to a small col (c. 5340 m) overlooking the Island peak. This was named Chugnis col (referring to the twelve-member Air Force team). From here, the route veered south-eastwards following the medial moraine of the Chugnis glacier to the base of the massif. Then the team skirted the base of the massif in an anticlockwise direction and reached a gully between the two arms of the massif. The massif has three peaks: the highest one on the north-eastern corner, the next one on the western limb, and a third plateau peak on a ridge extending southwards from the main peak. A narrow glacier descends in the gully between these peaks and goes on to feed the Shukpa Tokpo stream. A summit camp was established on a hillock in the gully (c. 5216 m). A team of four members and four Sherpas and Ladakhi nonoos left the summit camp at 04.00 a.m. The trail followed a ridge extending from the hillock in a north-easterly direction. The gradient was 45° and it took one hour to reach the head of the gully. We were now at the base of the col on the north between the two main peaks of the massif. We started climbing up the slope which had a gradient of 60 o and 50 m below the col veered to the right i.e., in a south easterly direction. It took us two hours to reach the ridgeline from the base. From here it was a 30 minute climb to the main summit. The view from this peak was stupendous. There was a big glacial valley with a number of high peaks on the east (Muztagh glacier). To the west, the Shan Lung glacier and the Chhurn nangma were seen in their entirety. Across the Rongdo valley Karpo Kangri could be seen towering in the northwest. To the north the southern rim of the Canadian valley was visible and the Kunzang group of peaks to the northeast. This peak was named Odgsal I (Odgsal - clear light in Tibetan, c. 6234 m). The team descended to the summit camp and thence to the ABC in order to make place for the next summit team. This team followed the same route to the base of the Odgsal col and then rapidly climbed up the eastern face of the peak in the western limb of the massif on the next day. They were able to climb up in one and half hours. This peak was named Odgsal II (c. 6028 m). The third team was scheduled to climb the plateau peak (Odgsal III) but the plan was abandoned. Four days of bright sunshine had made the snow unstable and the route up western slope was fraught with avalanche risk. Instead another peak was selected close to the ABC. This peak located in the southern ridge of the Canadian valley was up the first gully ahead of the ABC. The team headed east from ABC up to the col and then veered left to ascend the gully in 45 minutes time. They then ascended steeply up a glacier to reach a cirque in a little over two hours. This glacier was named Dabin glacier as it resembled a bowl (Dabin - means bowl in Ladakhi). From there they could see two peaks; one to the west and another to the east. The team decided to attempt the latter. The gradient was 70° and a rope had to be fixed for the last 25 m. The peak was climbed by the east- west ridge in five hours after leaving ABC. The Ladakhi climbers felt that the peak resembled a vulture head in profile and it was thus named Charok (Charok - vulture in Ladakhi, c. 6123 m).
Approaching Sa’i Lhamo summit. (IAF 2013 Expedition)
Langpoche peak. (IAF 2013 Expedition)
While the third summit team was climbing Charok, the first team decided to go up the Rongdo valley up to the glaciers, a task they had left undone due to the bad weather. The team left base camp at 06.00 a.m. They first tried to ascend along the left side of the Sakskyulas but had to abandon the idea as the boulders made going difficult. They forded the stream and climbed on to the flat meadow which they had crossed while going to ABC 2. They then descended to the stream, forded it, skirted the terminal moraine of the glacier and the base of Ngapo Kangri and then turned left. Ascending sharply, they reached a snowfield which was the highest point (c. 5562 m) in the valley and reached at 11.00 a.m. From here, three glaciers were visible. The Southeast Shukpa Kunchang to the north, the Lungkhor glacier to the west and Sagtogpa glacier coming from the north of Ngapo Kangri in a westerly direction and then turning south into the Rongdo valley. The third valley on the left was also explored. Thara lungpa is a short valley dominated by a hanging glacier, Thara Kangri glacier. The glacier snout is 30 m high and one has to negotiate a snowfield similar to the one at Everest Base Camp to reach it. The climbers climbed along the right edge of the glacier snout and reached the glacier after three hours of climbing. There were two peaks above but the sheer rock faces made ascent from Rongdo side impossible. From Odgsal I we had already seen that these peaks could be climbed easily from the eastern side after crossing Shan Lung glacier.
The Air Force expedition spent five weeks in Rongdo valley. Summary of their climbs as follows:
|Peak||Name suggested||Height||Date of Ascent||Team|
|18 May 13||Members:Gp Capt VK Sashindran, Sqn Ldr S Dubey, Sgt G S Pokhariya, Cpl JPS Raina, Cpl S Bohra, Cpl JR Poonia Sherpas/Ladakhi nonoos: Skalzang Rigzin, Tshering Bhutia, Karma Sherpa, Tashi Zangla|
|19 May 13*||Members: Sgt C Y Basavraj, Sgt D K Vyas, Cpl D Chhetry Sherpas/ Ladakhi nonoos: Konchok Thinles, Tsewang Rigzin, Dawa Norbu, Stenzing Desal|
|3||Chu Skeyes Kangri||20286’
|25 May 13||Members: Gp Capt V K Sashindran, Sqn Ldr S Dubey, Cpl JPS Raina, Cpl S Bohra, Cpl JR Poonia Sherpas/ Ladakhi nonoos: S Rigzin, K Thinles, ashi Gyalson, S Desal, Tsewang Gialston|
|26 May 13||Members: Gp Capt V K Sashindran, Sqn Ldr S Dubey, Cpl JPS Raina, Cpl S Bohra, Cpl JR Poonia Sherpas/ Ladakhi nonoos: S Rigzin, K Thinles, ashi Gyalson, S Desal, Tsewang Gialston|
|26 May 13||Members: Sqn Ldr Avinash Prasad, Flt Lt K S Sanghera, Sgt CY Basavaraj, Sgt D K Vyas, Cpl D Chhetry, Cpl IA Dar Sherpas/ Ladakhi nonoos: T Zangla, T Rigzin, K Sherpa, D Norbu, C Bhutia, D Gyalpo|
|Members: Gp Capt VK Sashindran, Sgt GS Pokhariya, Cpl JPS Raina, Cpl JR Poonia Sherpas/Ladakhi nonoos: K Thinless, D Norbu, D Gyalpo, Tashi Phunchok|
|Members: Sqn Ldr S Dubey, Flt Lt KS Sanghera, Sgt CY Basavaraj, Cpl S Bohra Sherpas/Ladakhi nonoos: S Rigzin, K Thinles, D Gyalpo, S Desal|
|Members: Sqn ldr A Prasad, Sgt DK Vyas, Cpl D Chhetry, Cpl IA Dar Sherpas/ Ladakhi nonoos: S Rigzin, K Thinless, S Desal, T Bhutia|
*Not summited, height mentioned refers to the actual height climbed. The peak’s height as per Survey of India map is 6160m.
Detailed exploration of Rongdo valley of the Eastern Karakoram by a large Indian Air Force team in May – June 2013. They achieved first ascents of seven peaks and attempted one more.