Climbs in the Hagshu Basin

Dan Kopperud

In late June of 2013 as our team took care of the final packing details, Uttarkashi in northern India suffered one of the worst floods in over a millennium. The towns and roads that linked the pilgrimage route to our mountain were washed away and wiped off the map. The mountain we had been training for and focusing on for 18 months was now off the table. Fortunately, Jake and Gabe were able to pour over maps and find a new objective for us. After hours of research and investigation they found a mountain in the newly opened Zanskar region of Kashmir. Our new objective was the 6515 m main peak of the Hagshu massif along with two other virgin peaks P. 6055 m (our readings on the climb showed it to be 6191 m) and P. 6035 m. In 2010 a French team attempted the highest point on the massif, but turned back due to unfavorable conditions. Team Everyman was finally reunited when we met in Delhi on 30 June. We immediately went to the library and checked out the maps to see what new route we’d have to acquaint ourselves with. Our initial reaction was shock and then excitement: the area we’d be going to had three unclimbed 6000 m peaks and there were many, many more in the immediate vicinity. We felt strong and ready to climb, so we refocused our attention on our new objectives.

Trek to Base camp…

By the time we reached Kargil, the last city we’d see for six weeks, we were travelling in a small van crammed together. Our last stop was a collection of houses liberally referred to as a village named Akshow, just past Ringdom. On the morning of 07 July, we hired half a dozen massive, woolly yaks and donkeys to carry four weeks of food, climbing gear and video equipment.

We finally reached base camp on 08 July, which was set up on the last patch of grass high up the Hagshu valley. We acclimatised for a day by ferrying loads to advanced base camp (ABC) which was an arduous trek across rolling, constantly shifting and unstable moraines. On the morning of 10 July, Bryan, Jake and I went to ABC. We spent the next day fixing a line up a scree field which gave way to a waterfall that we’d be bypassing to get up to Camp 1.There was constant rockfall and we wanted to move quickly through this region. The next day, while Jean and Gabe started their move up to ABC, we left to find Camp 1. After traversing and climbing up around two more icefalls, we found a safer spot further up the glacier at approximately 5300 m, with fewer crevasses and better access to P. 6191 m and Hagshu I. This would be our permanent Camp 1. Here is an excerpt from Jake, regarding his thoughts on our journey over the last three days from ABC to Camp 1,

‘The south-east ridge of Hagshu I rises in a clear knife edge thrust above a loaf of snow. It was at once stupendous, frightening and alluring. Two prominent rock buttresses guard the summit ridge and a thin cornice suggests, yet more challenge. The summit proper itself, tucked behind the rock fortress, is a massively corniced bump of snow and ice. By no means, does it look easy. It looks difficult, technical and long. Slowly, bit by bit, we are able to identify possible routes and ways thru each section. Break a big mountain down into smaller pieces that the mind can deal with. Think of the whole and you become…overwhelmed, intimidated, lost. The approach is finally over. Climb time is here. We must forge this culmination of dreams and sweat into dedication and (dare I hope?) success…’

P. 6055 m. (Jonn Jeanneret)

P. 6055 m. (Jonn Jeanneret)

15 July, P. 6055 m, First Summit Attempt

After arriving at Camp 1 on 14 July, we decided to make a summit attempt that night. At 01.00 a.m. on 15 July Bryan, Jake and I hiked up around the rocky ridge located to the east of our camp. As we came around the ridge, we saw a couloir that looked like it would take us to P. 6055 m. We were surprised that it was only 30 minutes from camp, so when we hit the ridge, Bryan realised this was not the one we were aiming for. I was not feeling well, and was still feeling the effects of my efforts over the previous few days. So I decided to head back down. It was now about 03.00 a.m. and they saw a couloir just around the cirque and headed over to start climbing its lower flanks. This portion of the couloir was simple 50-60 degree snow and ice, so they soloed up. About halfway up the couloir they ran into some overhanging seracs. Bryan led the ice pitch which ended on a beautiful ledge overlooking the entire cirque. Jake ran out the full rope length on the next snow pitch, but ran into vertical alpine ice just above his snow anchor. They climbed the next 200-300 m of ice 60 m at a time.

At the top of the ice they found a great little cutout in the snow to rest and get some food and water. They climbed a 15 m ice pitch at the north end of the cutout to gain the ridge, but at this point a massive whiteout had consumed the entire upper portion of the mountain. The wind was howling so much that they weren’t sure if it was snowing or just blowing up from below them. They could see about 100 m ahead and noticed a large rock up on the ridge, only about what appeared to be 100-150 m in height, from the summit. They decided to head for that rock and take cover for a few hours. It was only 11 a.m., so they assumed they had some time before they needed to head back down. Bryan grabbed the rope and headed straight toward the rock ridge, when he got there he was amazed to find another cutout similar to a moat in the front of the first rock ridge. What was different about this cutout was that it contained an alpine lagoon. Bryan cracked the ice and filled his bottles with some cold but well-needed water. Up on the snow the wind was ferocious, but down in our moat it seemed like a calm fall day with the temperature cold but manageable. The boys had now been out for 12 hours and were in position to summit, if the weather would simply clear enough for them to see.

At 04.00 p.m., Bryan set out again for the summit, but after only 100 m, he couldn’t see where to head next. Knowing that this area was possibly heavily crevassed with a few hanging seracs overhead, Bryan realised it was time to head back to the ravine and wait. By 05.30 p.m. the storm hadn’t let up and with dark coming they realised they couldn’t wait any longer and decided to head down. In the meantime, Jean and Gabe had joined me at Camp 1 and we waited for Bryan and Jake to return. When I came down I realised that I had the summit team radio, so communication from the mountain was impossible. It was now after midnight and the guys had now been out for more 24 hours straight, so we started to worry. Meanwhile….

‘We chose to risk a night descent of the 70º slopes. We began to reverse our morning’s free solo – down climbing into the white gloom guided only by the few metres of footprints we could still see. A less tired soul might have been scared, but we accepted the odds and worked our way mechanically down. Darkness came on and we switched on our headlights. Two pale arcs of dying dim light, less than that of a small birthday candle was all we had. Barely able to see our own feet we clumped ever down. Finally we emerged at the bottom of the slopes, exhausted. We roped up and more by instinct and experience than by corporeal senses we avoided the gaping crevasses in the dark night and trudged the kilometre or so back into camp. It was 03.00 a.m.; we’d been out 26 hours.’

- excerpt from Jake’s diary

Jake and Bryan had now returned out of food and water and were extremely tired. “The route will go,” were their last words, as they crawled into the tent, desperate for some shuteye.

Our main objective was still Hagshu I, directly west of Camp 1, so the next day, Jean and I climbed up the glacier to the base of Hagshu to scout for a possible location for Camp 2. We found a suitably safe place in the flat expanse between P. 6035 m and Hagshu I in the middle of a bowl surrounded by enormous, unclimbed mountains and eagerly came back down to Camp 1 to report our find.

P. 6035 m, Summit Attempt

We all moved up to Camp 2, on 18 July, and made a plan to attempt P. 6035 m just after midnight. On 19 July, at 01.00 a.m. we left in two teams. Bryan and Jean were on one rope and Jake, Gabe and I were on the other. Jake describes the morning quite well.

‘Bryan’s cheery “Who wants to go climb an unclimbed peak?” rang out just past midnight, echoing across the hoar frosted night air and bouncing off the cirque of ice and rock that bound us here in our orange and green beetle-esque squats. Spirits rose with our stinking bodies and as fast as possible we donned gear, roped up and set off into the still inky-blackness. The almost nonexistent airy bridge over the bergschrund was reached and breached. Two pitches of ice later, a growing steepness of ice and eagerness to lead from Dan, saw me happily surrender the lead. Some anchors had been more hope than hold, and excavations of 30 cm to find solid ice frustratingly common. Still we were moving well and the climbing was thoroughly enjoyable.

The grey wave of pre-dawn light revealed a jagged horizon to our left, then it turned egg yolk yellow then pink and gold as the sun breached the curve of turning Earth. In minutes the kiss of cold beams touched us and the steep slopes that arched away above us. Soon the U.V.s would begin the treacherous softening of snow and anchors. Then illness struck. Vomit, shit and phlegm erupted in violent fits from Gabe. Jean and Bryan were now too far ahead to offer help and besides, we had no desire to halt their progress. A few minutes was all it took to make the heart wrenching decision. We needed to go down. Dan did an excellent job setting V-threads in the hard to find ice (when there was ice!) and together our team of three negotiated each pitch and peril back down and over the ‘schrund to camp 2.’

P. 6035 m East Face. (Jonn Jeanneret)

P. 6035 m East Face. (Jonn Jeanneret)

P. 6035 m North Face. (Jonn Jeanneret)

P. 6035 m North Face. (Jonn Jeanneret)

In the meantime, Jean and Bryan were still high on P. 6035 m. The next two pitches to the summit ridge were exciting and exposed. Jean was starting to struggle and seemed to be losing the battle with his cough. On Bryan’s first step, above the ridge plateau, he punched through to his waist and could see air below his feet. It was time to find a new route.

They wandered around the backside of the summit ridge and noticed the summit we were heading towards was a false summit. From our Camp 2, the summit was hidden behind what we thought was the peak’s high point. They walked around to the southeast face and located the true peak. While Bryan brought Jean up he noticed an opening in the cliffs below, with a snow ramp down the middle that led to the glacier. It would be a walk off option for a descent, but would put them on the exact opposite side of the mountain from our camp.

At 01.00 p.m. they reached a small rock ledge just below the summit. The final pitch was a mix of snow, ice and rock. Bryan put Jean on belay, confirmed with him how to properly place an ice picket and screw then he set off. Jean then proceeded to hack every bit of snow and ice off of the face and rock climb the final pitch. He made the summit, screamed aloud and filmed a few short videos. Bryan followed using the freshly exposed rock and had no problems finding Jean’s route to the summit.

At this point, a storm had started rolling in and it prevented them from seeing a descent route down the west ridge and since they didn’t have the v-thread tool they couldn’t rappel back down the face they came up. Instead, they took a snow ramp option that Bryan had seen on the south face during the ascent. It meant they could possibly walk off, but it put them on the opposite side of the mountain. They would need to circumnavigate the east side of the peak. Since there was no other option, they headed down and in a complete white-out finally made it to the glacier.

It was now about 08.00 p.m. and the adrenaline of the summit and down climbing was wearing off. Every step was hard work. Not far from camp, Bryan started to feel the psychological effects of the all-day climb. They saw no head lamps or sign of tents and their calls were answered by only the howls of the blowing wind and the fury of the storm. As they laid down one final time in the snow they saw a familiar crevasse crossing and knew that they were close! Bryan saw the dark shapes of the tents so he called out but got no response. Not until they were within 10 m of camp, did they finally hear voices and see lights come on. They made it! The guys named the route, ‘Under Moonlight’.

Camp 3 and Hagshu I attempt

After a rest day and more bad weather, we started making plans to climb Hagshu I. It sits on the opposite side of the glacier from P. 6035 m facing Under Moonlight, the route Bryan and Jean climbed. We could see what looked like a low-angle shoulder on the ridge of Hagshu and we planned to make Camp 3 there. Bryan, Jake and I left at 05.00 a.m. up a couloir that led to an ice face below the shoulder we planned to establish camp on. We spent the morning fixing lines and finally traversed around the mountain to the ice wall. Bryan led through the ice while an exhausted Jake and I followed. Here’ the same day in Jake’s ever so eloquent journal entry…

Hagshu I, face attempted

Hagshu I, face attempted

‘The push up to Camp 3 was long, hard and brutal. Burdened like human yaks (and with our scruffy beards and unwashed bodies, the analogy is closer than you might imagine!) with 25 kg or more Bryan, Dan and I zigzagged our way up the lower slopes. Ever above us rose Hagshu 1 and the mighty rock buttress, which seemed to guard the way to her summit. It hovered there over us, a physical and mental forbidding menace. We crested the first col and fixed some 220 m of twisty, recalcitrant, yellow nylon rope. When this ran out we began pitching on our last remaining 60 m rope. Vain promise, after illusion, after false promise of the ridge crest forced us ever up in a Sisyphean labour. As darkness threatened its arrival, Bryan’s joyous curses wafted down to us at our pitiful anchor. Camp 3 had been found. It was a narrow rock promontory that jutted out from the surrounding slopes like a shrugged boney shoulder or minor dorsal fin belonging to some peculiar creature of the deep. The little two-man tent sat awkwardly on a rough leveling of rock. On all sides the mountain dropped away in vertiginous plummeting sweeps of either rock or ice. Only to the back, in a narrow soaring hunch did it rise above us and towards that dark buttress. With snow and wind snapping at the three of us, we crammed into the tiny tent. Three puffed up sardines soaked in sweat and squeezed into a supposed two-man orange nylon can.’

The next morning Jean arrived and we set up the tent he brought, sorted our gear and made a plan for summiting Hagshu I. The ridge ahead of up was low-angle snow that led to nearly vertical ice which stopped at a gendarme, beyond which more ice and a rocky, exposed summit ridge. That night we were blanketed in some new snow which did not let up the entire next day, so we were all forced to wait another day, huddled in our tents, perched high up on Hagshu’s shoulder.

At 04.00 a.m. on 25 July, we started climbing unroped up the gradually steepening ridge. Jake didn’t have a good feeling about the conditions and decided to turn back. Bryan, Jean and I continued up the ice. The fresh snow covered the cracks and crevasses that had been becoming more exposed as the summer wore on. At several points we dug through snow to find solid ice for placing screws only to find rotten ice or massive empty expanses. We placed bad gear or no gear at all in these situations and continued up, making sure to make solid tool placements where we could.

As I was topping out the last pitch, I noticed what looked like a piece of blue cord. After I built a sketchy anchor out of four equalised snow pickets and a bird beak I looked up to inspect the cord. About five metres above me on the gendarme was a piton with blue cord sling through it. It appeared as if we’d encountered fixed gear from the French team who was here in 2010. We decided to skirt the gendarme and climb it from the right side. Jean started dry tooling and aiding up the rock before he got to the ice. We needed to decide our level of commitment and acceptable risk very quickly as the clouds enveloped us again. The ice had formed in a curtain where it was attached only at its top. We’d need to traverse it, with no protection, in order to get across the chasm to the next gendarme. None of us were willing to lead through it, especially with an impending whiteout looming. We had to face the reality at this point that if we didn’t continue, our shot at Hagshu I was finished. We all accepted this realisation as we made our high anchor to rappel down from. Several hours later we were back down to Camp 3. The next morning we broke camp and made our way back down to Camp 1 on the same day.

Hagshu I (6515 m) from east. (Jonn Jeanneret)

Hagshu I (6515 m) from east. (Jonn Jeanneret)

P. 6055 m, First Ascent

Bryan, Jean and I wanted to make one last attempt at P. 6055 m. So, on 28 July at 01.15 a.m. we left under perfect conditions. The stars were out and they lit our path as we climbed the initial snow slopes. We simul-soloed until we got to a frozen waterfall that Bryan had climbed during the previous attempt 12 days earlier with Jake, but now it was melting out and had become radically different. The pitch was a wet, flowing waterfall covered by a foot of solid ice. At the top of the pitch we decided that it would be fastest if we simul-climbed the 300 m ice wall to a recess in the snow. We continued unroped up the snow slope and as we climbed through the couloir. We unroped above the ice and soloed the final 250 m to the final pitch of technical snow and ice.

We weren’t sure what lay above or what the summit would even consist of. As Bryan climbed, he paused to dig snow away to find solid ice below to place protection. As he got higher, the ice became rotten and wouldn’t hold a screw so he placed pickets whose inevitable function was little more than lightening the weight he had to climb with and some psychological security. He pushed on through the steep snow, kicking down sloughs that landed on Jean and me with every step.

“It’s all soft snow!” Bryan called down to Jean and me, “I can’t get any gear in!” He was now two metres below the corniced ridge and six metres above his last, useless picket. He didn’t have anywhere to place gear and at any point could come hurtling down on top of Jean and I. The cornice was below what appeared to be either a summit plateau or a drop into space and Bryan was out of pickets. He had two screws left but there was nothing that would take a screw so he set his feet as solidly as he could and gingerly pulled on his axe to not disrupt the snow they floated in. He stood, on his precariously balanced feet and poked his head over the ridge. We heard his signature “Whoop!” and we knew he’d made it. A wave of relief and excitement swept over me. Jean and I followed and met Bryan on the slightly angled summit plateau where he’d sunk his last two screws. We looked around and noticed the hourglass shape of the summit and the two independent peaks of equal height. We checked the altitude and it was 6191 m. Apparently the survey done several decades before was a little low.

We took in the view around us and saw for miles in every direction. Finally, we had a clear day for a summit attempt and it was gorgeous. Below us was the Hagshu glacier and directly across from us was Hagshu I, with Camp 3 as high as we were now which served as a reminder of how huge Hagshu is. The sheer vastness of the area was awe-inspiring. We took our obligatory summit shots and Jean recorded a video proposing to his girlfriend, Brenna, from the summit. It was a bittersweet moment when I had the realisation that this was the culmination of 18 months of training; that in a few minutes we’d be heading down.

This region was opened officially for climbing again in 2010 and there are so many new objectives that climbers haven’t begun to explore yet. There is a bright future for climbing incredible peaks and faces in Kashmir. It’s a little overwhelming but mostly inspiring to think about the all possibilities and potential that this area holds for generations to come.

Oh, and Brenna said “Yes!” to Jean’s proposal.

View from upper slopes of Hagshu I. (Jonn Jeanneret)

View from upper slopes of Hagshu I. (Jonn Jeanneret)

Team Members: Bryan Hylenski - Leader, Jake Preston - Medical Officer, Jonn Jeanneret - Photographer, Daniel Kopperud and Gabriel Thomas.

Note by Lindsay Griffin, Senior Editor, American Alpine Journal:

Hagshu has confusing history of ascents. The peak has been reported to be around 6330 m, but the Survey of India marks it as 6515 m making it possibly the highest in the east Kishtwar region. The same map shows a distinct north top (around 6330 m), which sits above the much- attempted north face.

In 1988 a Polish expedition approached the mountain from Zanskar to the north. They ascended the glacier below the east-northeast face and eventually reached the plateau at c. 5700 m below the southeast ridge. In 1989 they returned, but this time from Kishtwar to the south. Due to consistent bad weather, most of the team eventually decided to abandon the attempt, but Pawel Jozefowicz and Dariusz Zaluski opted to stay. The day after the others left, the weather cleared. The two Poles climbed through a crevassed area and then a 500 m couloir (up to 60°) to reach the plateau below the southeast ridge. From here they climbed the southeast ridge in two days, reaching the summit on 9 September; there was a rock step of UIAA VI- and a 15 m ice step of 80°. They descended the same way and walked out to the north, arriving at the base camp of a British party. As the Poles did not have a permit, this ascent remained undercover.

The first official ascent was made just one week later, on 16 September, by Phil Booth, Max Halliday, and Ken Hopper (U.K.), who approached from Zanskar. They climbed a steep glacier system to reach the serac-torn east-northeast face, where they climbed a line up the centre with two bivouacs. They took a day’s rest at each bivouac site. The hardest climbing was above the second bivouac—a couple of pitches of Scottish 4. They followed the summit ridge southeast to the highest point (1200 m, TD, with much 55° névé).

Hagshu saw multiple visits by John Barry and various partners attempting the impressive north face; probably the best effort was in 1994, with Seb Mankalow, reaching c. 6000 m. After nearly 20 years, the peak was attempted again in 2010 by a large French expedition, which made little progress on the mountain.

In July 2013, a team of expatriates from Korea made two first ascents on P. 6035 m and P. 6055 m (their readings came to 6191 m) and also attempted Hagshu I (6515 m) up to 6440 m from where they had to return due to poor ice and weather conditions in the Hagshu basin of the Zanskar Himalaya.

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