In August 2013 the British Kishtwar Kailash Expedition was as ready as it could be. There were four of us, Paul Ramsden, Mike Morrison, Rob Smith and me. Our objective was the first ascent of the unclimbed highest peak in East Kishtwar and excitement levels were high. The troubles in Kashmir which have caused access problems for the last 20 years appeared to have subsided and Indian Home Office approval was expected any day now.
And then an Indian news report came to our attention:
12/8/2013 Srinagar News Report: In direct fallout of Friday's clashes in Kishtwar, all national highways leading to Jammu are now shut. Mobile and internet services were disconnected on Monday while schools and colleges remained shut.
A stressful month followed, the end result being that we didn’t finally get all the paperwork in place until the day before we left. Once they have been overcome I like to speak positively of these challenges as they keep the crowds away and leave plum objectives unclimbed. But somehow I have trouble enthusing in this way at this time.
It appeared that the valley beneath Kishtwar Kailash had not been visited since Andy MacNae and Shan Singh Mann crossed the Muni la and travelled beneath the west face nearly 25 years ago. They had described the mountain as ‘a very challenging objective.’ And Paul and I already knew it to be an inspiring mountain having viewed it from Shiva the previous year and Cerro Kishtwar in 1993. Inspiring and challenging is a good combination we thought. And so it became our 2013 objective.
To avoid the troubles in Kashmir our approach was via the Rohtang pass and down the Chenab gorge. The last 50 km of road to the start of our walk-in, proved to be the most exciting that any of us had ever experienced. Paul took a three minute video clip of one section which had 835,000 viewings when posted on FaceBook.
Kishtwar Kailash from north. (Fowler Ramsden Collection)
The walk-in to base camp shared the first part of the once well-used Umasi la crossing from Paddar to Zanskar. The troubles in Kashmir have hugely reduced the number of trekkers but conversely the ‘Machail Yatra’ (pilgrimage) in August, started only 40 years ago, now sees a remarkable 350,000 or so pilgrims covering the first two days to the small temple at Machail. The troubles in 2013 reduced that number by about half but even so that’s a huge number of people to cater for, particularly on mountain mule tracks designed to link villages with no more than 200 inhabitants. But we were here in late September by which time the only evidence of their passing was a significant amount of rubbish and a curiously large number of well used portable toilets.
Beyond Machail our route entered the Darlang nala, a 70 mile long valley at an altitude of above 3500 m. It was immediately clear that we were on less travelled paths which had not been used by mules loaded with mountaineers’ equipment for many years. Several sections had to be built up before the mules could pass and it was eight days after leaving the UK before we established a base camp a few hours short of Kishtwar Kailash at about 4000 m. What with the last minute permit stress and numerous uncertain moments with the mules it was a relief to arrive and be faced with just the challenge of climbing the mountain.
‘Establishing a base camp’ is actually rather a grand way of putting it. In practice each pair of climbers had one tent and Rinku, our liaison officer, Pritam our cook and Devraj the kitchen boy had another tent between them which doubled up as the cook tent.
The weather was indifferent but our time was restricted by full time jobs and every day has to be used to the full to stand a chance of success on a 6400 m peak in a 30 day trip from the UK. With such thoughts in mind Paul and I left promptly to explore and acclimatise around Kishtwar Kailash while Mike and Rob decided to explore a side valley.
Much as the cloud was down it felt excitingly adventurous to be heading up towards the peak that had been the focus of our attention for so many months. It would though have been better if we had been able to see it and thereby choose our preferred climbing line. Instead a full day was spent clambering over moraine covered glacier in the drizzle wondering exactly where we were.
On our third day out from base camp we reached a col at about 5700 m, still without getting a good view of the mountain that we had come to climb. The col had been spotted through clearings in the cloud and looked as if it would provide a suitable spot for relaxing, reading and acclimatising with maybe the possibility of ascending to a good viewpoint. In fact though it turned out to be a knife edge crest which, once flattened, gave a comfortable camping spot but little else. Fortunately though, after over 10 years of Himalayan climbing together, Paul and I are pretty well used to this acclimatising business and the fact that we spent the next two days pinned down in a small tent with just a small flattened area in front to walk about on was not a problem. We relaxed, read books and breathed in lots of thin air. At one point we even had a good view of the mountain that we had come to climb. We couldn’t see the face we planned to go up but what we saw did at least convince us that our vague plan of descending the other side was a very bad one. If we were successful it was clear that we would have to descend by our line of ascent. After two nights in the tent on the little col we returned to base camp for a day of resting and eating and then we were ready to go. Meanwhile Mike and Rob had returned too and were fattening up in preparation for exploring the unexplored upper reaches of the glacier.
We don’t bother with gadgets to deliver things like weather forecasts and so it was a surprise and relief to see clear skies as we waded the river by our base camp and left for the climb. Much as we hadn’t been able to have a really good look at our proposed line clearings in the weather on the way down from our acclimatisation outing had at least given us a good idea of the best line to follow. Our plan was to avoid icefall danger at the base of the face by climbing a couloir leading to a possible entry point above the danger. Mind you to get there involved a lot of uncertainty in steep loose ground to gain a glacier, an icefall and a couloir of uncertain angle. The icefall looked easy from a distance but ended up being quite exciting with an overhanging section which required a heel hook to succeed. By the end of the second day though we had reached the edge of the face and were relieved to see that our hunch was right and we could easily access the face above the dangerous icefalls at its base.
It somehow feels more intimidating to step out onto a face and immediately be faced with exposure than it does to build up to the same position from the bottom. Here the climbing very soon became memorably atmospheric with smooth ice fields and huge monolithic walls soaring above us and no obvious way through. But from my photograph, taken from the summit of Cerro Kishtwar in 1993, we knew that a fault line cleaved through the walls at one point and our hope was that this would provide the key to the lower part of the face. Classic European north face climbs tend to include sections of steep ice fields which succumb to calf muscle wrenching teetering on front points and initially the ground here was not dissimilar. As we gained height though, the ice became increasingly thin and the climbing increasingly precarious. By evening we were pleased and relieved to find a single spot to pitch our little tent on a small projecting prow just beneath the fault line. The weather remained glorious, the mountains beyond ‘our’ valley were increasingly coming into view and, as we snuggled down in the evening sun, it was beginning to feel that we were climbing in a very special place.
‘Think I might have to come down’
Paul had already been up and had tried, removed his sack and tried again and now he was sounding uncharacteristically defeated.
‘Round the corner might be better’ he offered.
Bivi 2, Rohini Shikhar behind. (Fowler Ramsden Collection)
I hung from my ice screw belay, sucking in the cold morning air and peering around. There was another possibility to the right but it didn’t look any easier to me and to get there would require an abseil and a traverse that would take a couple of hours at least. And I really didn’t want to do that. Losing upwards momentum can so easily lead to dithering and retreat. It looked to me that if we could just reach a point five m above Paul’s high point the difficulty would ease for a few metres at least. Higher up we could see a clearly overhanging section of ice but that was not the immediate problem. The section causing difficulty was a loose and thinly iced bulge in the fault line splitting the huge walls. It had looked to be standard Scottish Grade V climbing before Paul had started up but now he was actually trying to climb it I could see that it was much steeper than it looked and clearly loose and unprotected.
‘Shall I have a look?’
Mick Fowler on icy slopes, day 5. (Paul Ramsden)
I had no great confidence that I could get up if Paul couldn’t but somehow it seemed the right thing to say. There was a long silence.
‘I’ll have one more go.’
As he inched higher and higher I felt a slight pang of guilt wondering if I had indirectly encouraged him to push on against his better judgement. This was no place to fall, there was no further protection and the climbing was obviously hard. I must have been almost as relieved as he was when he finally reached a belay and shouted for me to climb.
As I approached Paul was looking relaxed and his usual positive demeanour was restored.
Paul Ramsden on headwall, day 5. (Mick Fowler)
‘Hard pitch that. Brilliant position.’ he enthused as I gasped my way through inelegantly through.
The climbing for the rest of the day was not unlike some of the harder Scottish gullies with steep, sometimes thinly iced grooves interspersed with a couple of wild, overhanging sections. The millions of tons of snow that must have poured down here during the monsoon had compacted the snow such that climbing conditions were generally very good. Much pleasure was had and as evening approached another solitary projecting prow to one side even allowed us to pitch the tent. Life was good. Usually on this kind of climb we end up bivouacked with one person wrapped in the tent fabric and another in a bivouac sack, or sometimes we cut a bum ledge and sit side by side inside the tent fabric. On this route though we had managed to get the poles in the tent and pitch it after a fashion every night so far. And that makes such a difference.
Above us now the fault line we had been following reared up vertically for a long, long way to reach the summit crest just north of the south summit. Back in the UK our initial plan had been to climb the fault line in its entirety. However, before we left, close inspection of the various photographs we had managed to get hold of made it clear that the highest point was at the north end of what looked to be a potentially long and difficult knife edge ridge. And with that in mind our intended route ahead now lay leftwards following ice slopes under more huge blank walls to a shallow groove line leading up the headwall directly to the highest point.
Abseiling on day 7. (Fowler Ramsden Collection)
Paul Ramsden leading ice groove section, day 4. (Mick Fowler)
We were rising above nearly all the surrounding peaks now and new horizons were opening. To the south the Prow of Shiva that Paul and I had climbed the previous year1 was visible whilst the 7000 m peaks of Nun and Kun now reared their heads above the Cerro Kishtwar/Chomochior ridge on the far side of our base camp valley.
That evening we ended up on two separate 30 cm wide ledges hacked out of an ice patch on the headwall. Sitting there soaking up the evening sun high on an unclimbed peak and marvelling at the cloudless view was one of those ‘it’s great to be in the mountains’ moments. As the last rays of sun left us I snuggled down in my sleeping bag using the tent fabric as a bivouac sack. Paul chose to sleep just in his sleeping bag. I seemed to be too excited to sleep but could hear Paul’s slow and heavy breathing through the still night air. Away to the south a thunderstorm was brewing and gradually through the night it came our way. I lay there marvelling at the almost continuous lightening and wondering how close I should allow it to get before waking Paul and preparing ourselves for its arrival. But then it was 4.00 a.m. and our alarms were beeping so it was time to stir ourselves anyway.
At bivi 5. (Fowler Ramsden Collection)
On a bivouac like this it takes us about two hours from the alarm sounding to when we are ready to start climbing. Normally the first thing to do is get the stove going but on this particular morning some water must somehow have frozen inside it and the day started with Paul thawing it out down his trousers for 15 minutes or so. There was much relief when the gas started to flow freely and we were able to start melting snow for a cup of the best quality Yorkshire tea that Paul insists we have to have on these trips.
Clearing site of bivi 4. (Fowler Ramsden Collection)
By the time we were ready to start climbing the thunderstorm had moved away but a front was clearly moving in. The way up the headwall was not immediately obvious but after first following a false line we gained a slanting fault line that gave some fine climbing leading directly to the summit. And what a wonderful summit it was. As I arrived Paul was sat on the knife edge crest with a leg on either side. The sun was still shining and with good visibility we could soak up the scenery and see that we were higher than any of the other peaks in this area. It felt a great privilege to be able to make the first ascent of a mountain like this. We loitered for 30 minutes taking photographs, generally revelling in the experience and contemplating that it’s a wonderful feeling to dream of something for many months and then achieve that dream.
Day 5, traversing towards headwall. (Fowler Ramsden Collection)
The weather stayed fair, the descent was pleasingly uneventful and seven days after setting out we were back at base camp. Mike and Rob had enjoyed their exploratory trip to the upper glacier, Pritam had prepared a Kishtwar Kailash success cake, relaxing felt particularly good and the enduring retrospective pleasure that goes with Himalayan success was beginning to flow. Long may the exciting peaks of Kishtwar be accessible for mountaineering.
The next day our perfectly timed weather window ended and snow came to base camp. The mules arrived as planned and it was time to go home.
Mick Fowler on summit. (Paul Ramsden)
Supported by Mike Morrison and Rob Smith, Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden completed the first ascent of Kishtwar Kailash (6451 m) in alpine style from 4 to 10 October 2013 climbing 1500 m on the southwest face.