01 March 1988. It was my first day of work as Director of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. My boss called me in to his office to discuss the parameters of my job and, almost as an aside, mentioned that I should ensure that my passport was current because I would need to go to Italy in May to attend the Trento Mountain Film Festival. I retained my composure, nodded (without grinning) and said, “of course, I’ll get on that”. I tripped back to my office, grabbed the world atlas – (remember, this was 1988!) and looked for Trento. Northern Italy – fly to Milano – train to Verona – change trains, turn left and head into the mountains. Yippee!
Aside from Banff, which was my home festival and which I had attended since 1977, Trento was the first mountain festival I had the occasion to visit. It wasn’t the last. Over the twenty years that I directed the Banff festival, and in the years since then when I have continued to attend festivals, either to jury films or give lectures, I have been privileged to be part of this global mountain community.
I remember one jury dinner at the Kendal festival in Britain’s Lake District. American filmmaker David Breashears stood up and proposed a toast. We expected a toast to the jury, perhaps to the filmmakers whose work we were there to celebrate. But no, his toast was to the festival organisers. David explained in just a few sentences how important mountain festivals were to the mountain community. Organised sports have competitive games where enthusiasts gather; artists and musicians have concerts and openings where their community gathers. But climbers go into the mountains to practice their passion: there is no ‘gathering ’. Climbing takes place in relative solitude. But there is a mountain community – a group of people around the world who share those alpine values, those vertical experiences, that passion for going up. As he raised his glass to the festival team he thanked them for creating events where that community of loners could meet, tell stories, celebrate successes, mourn their friends who remained in the mountains and, above all, share their common passion.
It’s hard to know where to begin on this whirlwind festival tour, but perhaps it is with an organisation whose birth I was happy to be part of. The International Alliance of Mountain Films was the brainchild of just nine festival directors in 2000. We all knew each other and we met when we could, sharing information, contacts, ideas and crying on each others’ shoulders about funding, technology and marketing. But in 2000 we decided to form a proper association, with common goals, common standards and a sense of cooperation. Our first meeting was at the Museo della Montagna in Torino, Italy, under the leadership of its director, Aldo Audisio. The founding member festivals were: Trento, Italy; Autrans, France; Graz, Austria; Cervinia, Italy; Lugano, Switzerland; Torello, Spain, and the Museo in Torino. It’s amazing to look at the Alliance now, with its 21 members representing 16 countries in four continents.
You might ask where are these festivals that seem to be multiplying like rabbits? What are their characters? What differentiates them and what do they have in common? Each one of these mountain festivals has its own character – its special flair and tradition. But the common values are a love for mountain landscapes and culture, an understanding of issues that are important to mountain communities and a common passion for alpinism. In other words, each festival is an ambassador for mountain culture.
Trento – that first mountain festival that I visited – is the oldest. Begun in 1952, this is a distinctly classy festival. You can wander the historic streets and alleyways of Trento, with architectural jewels around every corner, bubbly Prosecco in every bar, mountaineering legends sipping espresso in the sidewalk cafés, and always, that heady aroma of spring. Trento is in May, and May in the Trentino valley is magical. The festival is massive: more than a week of lectures and meetings, film screenings and book events, press conferences and coveted awards. There is an air of history and tradition that you don’t find at any other festival. Trento is simply Trento.
My first visit there was overwhelmingly intimidating. Just two months into the job and I was thrust into the granddaddy of them all. I survived, met a lot of important mountain personalities, saw more than 80 films and returned more than 20 times. Trento is now almost like a second home to me. Although it has evolved over the years, Trento retains its solid, indestructible character.
The second festival that I visited on this global tour was Autrans, France. Invited to be on their jury in 1989, I was surprised to learn that the village of Autrans, set in a high rolling plateau above Grenoble, was home to the x-country events for the 1968 winter Olympics. The festival has a more youthful atmosphere than Trento and is very, very French. French and Swiss filmmakers swarm to the event, creating an artsy, professional atmosphere amidst the rural setting and strong aroma of Gitanes. Autrans is also the original home of the famous Piolet d’Or – the Academy Awards of alpinism. Although the Piolet now takes place in Chamonix, the first few years were in Autrans, adding a touch of elitism as the world’s finest alpinists gathered to await the judgment of the jury and their peers. How can I ever forget the first time I met Tomaž Humar as he stormed around the festival, or Lynn Hill, that tiny jewel of a woman in her even tinier black miniskirt? Even the French were wowed!
One of the most alpine locations for a mountain film festival is Les Diablerets, Switzerland. The picture-perfect village is 1160 m high on the north side of the glacier-covered Les Diablerets massif in the Bernese Alps. Founded in 1969, the festival takes place in September when the valley has emptied itself of busloads of tourists and replaced them with cows. Lots and lots of gargantuan cows, trudging up to the alpine meadows to fatten up during the day, and waddling back down to the security of their barns at night. It’s quite a show. Almost as good as the films! The festival atmosphere is permeated with the guiding tradition in Switzerland. One of the highlights of the festival is the fetes des guides – an alfresco culinary extravaganza that focuses on one simple dish - raclette.
Lugano, Switzerland hosts one the most elegant of all the mountain festivals, although it would be a tight race with Graz, Austria. More of that later! Lugano’s festival is different, for it is a ‘festival dei festivals’ – an event that showcases the best films from the other festivals. Because it is not competitive, it lacks the sort of ‘frisson’ that you find at competitive festivals. You can’t replicate that air of nervousness and excitement. But the well-moneyed streets of Lugano and the exquisite backdrop of Switzerland’s Ticino region give it a solid, self confident air.
Graz, Austria, has all of that and more. The aristocratic city of Graz boasts a long and complex history as a crossroads between the Germanic countries and the Balkan regions. Its more recent history is also controversial, for it was a favorite haunt of Hitler. With its grand houses and public buildings, spacious squares, mountainous backdrop, substantial menus and spectacular local wines, (particularly the Grüner Veltliners), Graz is well equipped to host a mountain festival. Unlike most others, the Graz festival is privately owned. Robert Schauer, one of Austria’s most renowned alpinists (and that’s saying a lot) is the father, mother, and patron of the Graz festival and his personality informs every aspect of it.
A much younger festival, but still one of the founders of the Alliance, was the Cervinia International Film Festival. Founded in 1998 at the base of the Italian side of the Matterhorn, this festival’s original aim was to select and reward films that had already been awarded by others festivals - another ‘festival of festivals’ kind of approach! Since then, this festival has evolved into a competitive event as well as publishing and other special events. It’s hard to compete with the location. Of course the Matterhorn dominates the view, but there are plenty of other 4000 m peaks nearby, providing lots of temptations for festival goers. I have to admit to sneaking out on more than one occasion for some nice long days in the mountains.
There are many young festivals starting up, including one in Spain’s Basque region. Founded in 2008, the MENDI festival first took place in Vittoria, Spain but then moved to Bilbao for practical reasons. I returned to the festival for the second time in December 2013 and can say that this festival has extremely clear mountaineering roots. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since Basque country has produced more than its share of world-class alpinists over the years. Climbing is an incredibly important part of Basque culture and you can feel it at the MENDI festival: the choice of films, the speakers, and the audience. Alpinism permeates all of the mountain cultural activities of the festival, which is young but also ambitious. It plans to develop a year-round mountain cultural program in Basque country.
Another festival with a strong mountaineering heritage is in Domžale, Slovenia. Begun in 2007, this is the brainchild of one of Slovenia’s best climbers, Silvo Karo. I was at the first festival organised by Silvo and still remember the impressive lineup of speakers: Catherine Destivelle, Doug Scott, Robert Schauer, and of course the cream of the Slovenian climbers – some of the best in the world. This is an early winter festival that now takes place in the country’s capital, Ljubljana, and looks like it will have a brilliant future.
A much different festival exists in Dundee, Scotland. Begun in 1983, the UK’s longest running mountain film festival is non-competitive and features the Banff World Tour program together with other independent mountain films and speakers from around the world. Held the last weekend of November, Dundee has a unique atmosphere. It is wildly popular with the local population, many of whom are ‘walkers’ and ‘Munroers’. Dundee is a ‘gentle’ festival – less adrenalin than some festivals that focus on climbing – on adventure – on performance. The Dundee festival treads gently on the landscape and is a welcome change.
Another important British mountain film festival takes place in Kendal, the heart of the English Lake District and the birth place of British mountaineering. The festival is packed with climbers who come from around the country for the films and lectures (I have never seen a festival with more lectures) and, if they’re lucky – a nip out into the hills for a day of climbing. The fall weather is fickle but when it’s good, it’s very, very good. Luckily for the festival it’s mostly bad, which means the climbers are indoors, watching films. Perhaps the defining attraction of Kendal is the socialising. Dare I say it – the pubs? Even the festival promotes itself as ‘THE main social event for outdoor people in the UK’. They’re not exaggerating. This is a tribal gathering, one of so many around the world, where the mountain community gathers and renews itself.
Most mountain festivals’ characters are defined by the landscapes in which they are found. That is certainly true for Poprad, Slovakia. Poprad is a small town tucked beneath, and dominated by, the Tatras mountains which span the Slovakia, Polish border. I was privileged to be at the very first festival in 1993, plus several more since then. What a pleasure to watch Poprad find its character and its public, which is now huge. The October festival offers a symbolical ‘window on the world’ to its audience, and it strives to awaken and promote an interest in protecting the environment. The director, Maria Hamarova, and her husband Peter Hamor – Slovakia’s top Himalayan climber – lead the festival with authority and passion and as a result, it is a real player in the European scene.
Just on the other side of the Tatras is the 10-year-old, Zakopane mountain film festival. Zakopane is the mountain stronghold of Poland. It’s where this nation trained its climbers, both summer and winter. It’s where Poland’s incredible Himalayan dominance was formed. It’s where Poland’s guiding culture was born. Zakopane is a special place, with its characteristic wooden architecture, its unique mountain cuisine, and always….always…the Tatras, towering over the village.
The festival features films on mountaineering, adventure, culture, nature, and social and human rights issues. But there’s much more: exhibitions, lectures, discussions, interviews, climbing competitions and mountain tours with guides clad in traditional costumes and accompanied by local musicians. This festival’s strong mountaineering background is tempered by the special ‘Highlander’ tradition of the Zakopane valley: woodcutters, cheese makers, shepherds and free mountain spirits! This is a young festival with an exciting future. I’ve only been once, but I am determined to return!
Not too far away, but with a completely different atmosphere, is the film festival in Krakow. Krakow – beautiful Krakow. One of the most exquisite cities in the world – almost a distraction for this festival, which takes place in December. But obviously not, since it attracts huge audiences of mountain enthusiasts. I will never forget looking out at the auditorium, just before starting my lecture at the Krakow festival – 1200 people, waiting. This is probably the largest mountain festival in mountain-obsessed Poland.
Further north is Ladek, a Polish spa town not far from the Czech border. At least it’s Polish now. Poor Ladek has flipped and flopped from Austria to Poland to Germany to Poland. For the moment it’s in Poland. And although the town is usually frequented by ‘spa-people’, during one week in September, the streets fill up with a livelier crowd. Really quite lively! Young. Active. Full of life and energy and ready to laugh, argue and dance. They fill the temporary tent structures with hundreds and hundreds of people to watch adventure films and more than anything, listen to the incredible line-up of speakers. I’ve only been to Ladek once, but I was blown away by the quality of lectures. The programming wasn’t just about adventure and adrenalin, but about real exploration, real issues, real history and real current events. The feeling at Ladek was of a knowledgeable festival, both from its director and its audience.
Not far away across the border in the Czech Republic is the Teplice nad Metují Mountain festival. This is a climber’s town, set amongst the fantastical sandstone towers that dominate this part of the country. Begun in 1980, one of the goals of the festival is to promote mountain cinematography as well as to show – mainly to the young– a good way to spend their leisure time. It’s quite curious, because one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had at a festival was in Teplice. As I wandered around the village I noticed a couple of people on crutches. Then a few more! Finally I realised that I had seen at least 20 or younger, healthy-looking people hobbling around on crutches, obviously in pain from their injuries. There must be a huge hospital nearby, I thought. This must be some kind of rehabilitation centre. I was wrong. They were climbers – victims of the vicious nature of climbing on the Teplice sandstone towers. It wasn’t until a day or two later that I found out just how dangerous they were - beautiful to look at, but difficult to protect oneself. If I could use one word to describe the Teplice festival, it would be ‘hardcore’.
There are many more. Vancouver and Mussoorie. Telluride and Taos. Passy and Tegernsee. Kathmandu and Ushuaia. Big festivals. Small festivals. Cult festivals. Film festivals and book festivals. And at the end of this whirlwind world tour of mountain festivals is Banff. My home festival, and the one that I directed for 20 years. The Banff Mountain Festival is situated in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. It began in 1976 as a one-day event and has grown into a nine-day festival followed each year by the World Tour with over 530 screenings in about 30 countries on all seven continents. The Festival combines film and book competitions with photography and art exhibitions, a trade show, craft fair, speakers, panel discussions and writing and filmmaking educational programs. With more than 10,000 audience members in Banff and an additional 200,000+ on the world tour, it is surely the biggest single impact on mountain culture in the world. Many of those tour screenings are slowly but surely evolving into stand-alone festivals with their own distinct characters.
Banff’s roots are mountaineering roots, still a strong component of the festival. But it has branched out to include environmental, sport and cultural themes. Like so many other festivals, Banff is a meeting of the tribe, a crossroads for the global mountain community that migrates each November to the little town in the shadow of Tunnel Mountain where they meet their friends, are inspired, learn new skills, and renew passion for the mountains. And that’s what these mountain festivals are all about.
A kaleidoscopic view of different mountain festivals organised around the world from the author’s perspective and her personal involvement with them.
Richard (Dick) Isherwood. (Geoffrey Cohen)
Not long ago my good friend Richard (Dick) Isherwood described in the Alpine Journal some climbs we did together in the Himalaya in 1980. However he omitted to mention what I thought had been possibly the most successful of our campaigns. When I asked him why, he said that as they were not new routes he didn’t think they were worth describing. Now very sadly, at too young an age, Dick has gone off to climb in another world. I cannot write as engagingly and wittily as he always did, but in remembrance of a good friend here is a short account of a memorable two weeks1.
We met up in Joshimath on 21 June 1980. Dick immediately constructed a shopping list and in the evening we went to the bazaar and purchased a generous quantity of fresh vegetables – cabbages, peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and of course garlic which Dick loved inordinately (he once used a surplus of several pounds of garlic to make a garlic soup!). This was supplemented by rice plus tins of butter, cheese, tuna, bacon rashers, chicken curry and a ‘mystery’ tin. Next morning Dick persuaded two Nepali porters to come with us to the Valley of Flowers at the princely rate of Rs 20/- per day. At that time, and possibly still, there was such poverty in western Nepal that there were always Nepalis available for work on the Indian side of the border. Our lads were sent off to get themselves shoes and blankets while we bought bus tickets for the hour’s ride down to Govind Ghat, where the trek to the Sikh holy temple at Hem Kund starts. After a wet night at Ghangria we walked through the Valley of Flowers, where Dick the naturalist identified for me the beautiful yellow lilies and violets, blue cranesbills, purple pea, dwarf orchids, primulas, red, orange and yellow potentillas and many others. Base camp (one two-man Vango tent) was set up at about 3960 m at the far end of the valley and our two brave lads sent back to warmer nights below.
Rataban (6166 m) northwest face. (Geoffrey Cohen)
After a day’s reconnaissance we set off to attempt the northwest face of Rataban (6166 m), the most accessible and reasonable objective given our limited time. Our spare food was stashed in a small cave. We took with us two ropes, three ice screws and a few small wires. As afternoon wore on we found ourselves floundering in thick mist on a glacier shelf at about 4875 m listening to the sounds of avalanches coming off the crags above us. We reckoned we could camp far enough from the cliffs to be fairly safe and hope for better visibility in the morning. As it turned out the weather remained poor but we managed next day to weave around a variety of crevasses and ice cliffs to reach the col below Rataban, where in cold, wet and windy weather we got the tent up and crawled inside. Later in the afternoon Dick went outside and watched avalanches coming off the slopes of Rataban, one of which crossed our tracks and would have obliterated us. The following day was foul too and my memory is of snuggling down all day with our books - Dick read the recently published ‘Snow Leopard’ by Peter Mathiessen and I had a Hindi grammar book; luckily he was very tolerant of me muttering my exercises.
Dick Isherwood on the northwest face of Rataban. (Geoffrey Cohen)
On 28 June the sun began to emerge, so we climbed a short way to a snowy bump northwest of the col, enjoying tremendous views of Chaukhamba, Nilkanth, Mana, Kamet and nearby Nilgiri Parvat; we allowed this day for some of the fresh snow to clear. Though it snowed again in the night and was cloudy at 5.00 a.m. next morning, after discussion we decided to attempt the peak in spite of the ominous weather. We were away by 7.00 a.m., crossing avalanche debris to reach a spur on the right of the northwest face. A little way up this we found a fixed rope; although apparently in quite good condition much of it was buried in snow and thus not very useful. We climbed eight pitches of mixed ground at about Scottish grade III, during which the cloud thinned and some patches of blue sky appeared. Either side of our spur the ground plunged down in steep mixed faces of impressive depth. At noon we reached a place a few hundred feet above the last rocks, where it seemed safe to unrope. Above us was a snow ridge at an angle that did not seem too challenging, so we left our sacks and just took one rope and a bite to eat. Dick stormed off up the snow at a terrific pace and I panted along in his steps. An hour and a half later, after a passing a few icy steepenings, we rested in the cloud on top with nothing to view. Dick announced with satisfaction that it was his tenth 6000 m peak, but after waiting in vain for a clearing we started down. For a couple of hours on the descent the weather deteriorated to a cold, wet afternoon, but the evening brought another clearing. Abseils were slow - we had only one stitch plate between us, as Dick had not yet acquired such up-to-date technology, so he hauled mine up for each abseil! But by dint of down-climbing where we could, we got back to camp by 7.30 p.m.
Nilgiri Parvat (6474 m) northwest face. (Geoffrey Cohen)
Next day we got down off the glacier and enjoyed a memorable lunch drying everything that had got extremely wet during the bad weather on the col, only to get more showers in the afternoon and evening at our base camp. We then took three days food to cross the Khulagarvia col and make a lightning attempt on Nilgiri Parvat (6474 m). The way up to the pass (about 5180 m) took us alongside a beautiful waterfall and then a long grassy ridge, strewn in its lower reaches with the most gorgeous flowers. On the far side there were gentle snow slopes leading down to the desolate moraines of the Khulagarvia glacier. We had a real sense of exploration penetrating this unfrequented place. Cloud and icefalls initially prevented us from seeing more than a brief and partial view of the north side of our peak, but having made a second camp at about 5490 m on a snow shelf we finally got a clearing on the evening of 2 July. The face above, entirely snow at a not very steep angle, looked long but eminently feasible; all we needed was a day of good weather, but we had no spare days so there was only one throw of the dice, and in the monsoon our chances were doubtful.
We were lucky and got a reasonably fine day with only thin cloud around the tops. As usual, Dick led nearly the whole way making steps in the snow with inexhaustible energy. Here and there we tried to move fast where there was some risk of serac fall, and we needed a little bit of traversing to get around some ice cliffs; otherwise there were no serious obstacles and we only needed to rope up for about three pitches. On the way up we had excellent views north towards Mana and Kamet and, much nearer, the elegant Mandir Parvat, but from the summit, views were limited by cloud. We were back in our tent after only ten hours, a fairly short summit day by Himalayan standards, feeling mighty pleased to have got this peak in only four days after Rataban.
Dick Isherwood climbing northwest face of Nilgiri Parvat. (Geoffrey Cohen)
On 4 July we descended the Khulagarvia glacier, climbed back up to the col and back down to the Valley of Flowers. On this last descent my legs began to feel so weak that I couldn’t trust them to support me, doubtless the consequence of the last few strenuous days, and when I tried to run down the last few hundred feet above base camp they crumpled completely. Dick however remained strong enough to climb back up to our stash and retrieve pack frames, walking shoes, and cooking pots. We descended next morning with 60 pound packs as far as Ghangria, where we managed to negotiate a horse and man to take our loads back down to the road. We just made the last bus and reached Joshimath in a torrential downpour, where we gorged on coffees, samosas and burfi.
There are many styles of Himalayan climbing. Nowadays, with the growth of commercial agencies that do the local organisation, many expeditions have extensive support even for quite straightforward peaks around the 6000 m mark. Looking back at this short trip, it was satisfying to have climbed two quite easy but respectable 6000 m peaks from different valleys in a fortnight, with little bandobast or expense and only a day and a half of support from two porters. Success was only feasible because our peaks were fairly accessible and thanks to Dick’s huge energies. The Himalaya being so vast one hopes there will always be opportunities for small parties to be nimble and climb ‘under the radar’.
An account of an early lightweight expedition to the Garhwal Himalaya by two British climbers in 1980, proving that ‘small is beautiful’. They climbed Rataban (6166 m) and Nilgiri Parvat (6474 m) within a short span of four days between two summits.
The idea of attempting Kuchela Dhura (6250 m) came when we were on the upper slopes of Changuch in 20111. The north face of the peak was accessible through Lawan valley near Naspanpatti, an hour’s walk before the snout of Lawan glacier. Kuchela Dhura’s summit hump offers an almost three km long and sharp ridge leading towards the north face of Nanda Kot in the southwest direction. Its southern slope sharply falls into the Shalang valley. The cause of it being unclimbed is probably the attraction of other majestic peaks in this valley like Nanda Kot, Changuch and Nanda Devi East. We went in the pre-monsoon of 2012 and followed the ridge from the Nanda Kot side but only managed to reach 6206 m before we were stopped by a ‘V’ shaped notch.
North Face and the icefall of Kuchela Dhura (6250 m). (Dhruv Joshi)
In 2013 I opted for post monsoon season. Earlier this year in June, as I was sitting at the end of Lawan glacier after successfully crossing the Trail’s pass with two of my climbing associates, looking at the cloud covered Kuchela Dhura, I whispered – “We have to do it this year!” I could see only the ice fall on the north face of the peak, but I had an intuition that the peak had shown us the route. Here was the mountain that had repelled us during last year’s attempt and now was showing us the way. I decided to climb the peak through the icefall. I was supposed to take a few climbing members from my last year’s Kuchela Dhura attempt as I again planned to do the job without any high altitude supporters, but at the last minute only one participant from last year’s expedition was selected – Wallambok Lyngdoh whom I appointed a Deputy Leader of the expedition. The new members were Vineet Kumar Saini, Chitramohan Singh Chauhan, C. Zormsanga, Banshngainlang Nongkynrih, Vijay Rautela,Ram Prasad Lodha, Karan Kumar Shandilya and our medical officer Dr Anand Vaidya. We left Delhi on 18 August for Munsyari.
Trek to Lawan glacier and base camp
Lawan is the most accessible glacier which lies on the outer ring of the Nanda Devi sanctuary in the Kumaun Himalaya. Lawan gad emerges from the glacier and joins Gori ganga which forms the main tributary of river Kali which is the natural border between India and Nepal. We started our trek on 20 August towards the base of the peak. It was around 70 km from Munsyari and would take around four to five days. Landslides, busted trails and wiped-out bridges were outcome of 16 June disaster in Uttarakhand state. En-route our base camp we observed the devastation and witnessed how unsympathetic nature could be. As we started from Dhaba (road head) where jeeps dropped us, we realised that much had changed in a very short period.
Our first day’s halt Lilam was not so far from the present road head Dhaba and it earlier took around two and half hours. This time, the landslide had changed the trail and after an hour’s walk we had to fix the ropes for porters as well as for the members. Afterward we walked through long grassy slopes on narrow trails with leeches for companions as we reached Lilam at 5.00 p.m. The following day we started a bit early for Bugdiyar, our next halt, 16 km from Lilam. At this moment we were on an old reopened pathway to Johar valley via Minsingh Top, which had been closed a few decades ago as the new route was along with the Gori ganga and took less time to travel the same distance. This route involved a three-and-half hour steep climb and a one hour downhill walk to Rargarhi bridge. We kept climbing up and down in landslide region until we reach Bugdiyar at 6.00 p.m., and soon heavy rain showers welcomed us. Next day we started early keeping the landslide, conked out tracks and bridges in mind and forced ourselves to reach Martoli village before the dusk. After we left Martoli village, a temporary single log bridge before Lawan village became a time consuming obstacle so we had to camp out in the vicinity of Ratagangal. The next day we arrived at the desired location at 10.00 a.m. and established base camp. It was a pleasing alpine grazing land at an elevation of 4173 m just opposite to Naspanpatti en route to Nanda Devi East base camp on the true right bank of Lawan gad.
Base camp to advance base camp
The location of the advance base camp was in the southern direction from the base camp. The route began with a 400 m walk on a gradual grassy slope towards southeast followed by a climb then a traverse of around 400 m west led the trail to the lower part of the glacier. After a final walk of 400 m on a gradual glacial slope towards south we reached the site of our advance base camp at 4922 m. It was the same location we had reached the previous year for a recce during pre monsoon and had turned back after watching continuous avalanches from the icefall above it.
Our team made four consecutive heavy load ferries to ABC before occupying it. On 29August rain delayed our early start. Wallambok, Vijay, Chitramohan, Vineet, our cook Manoj and I arrived at ABC at 06.30 p.m., while C. Zoramsanga, Ram, Ban, Karan and our kitchen boy accomplished a load ferry. Rock fall and heavy rains continued through the night. Next morning we were blessed by the astonishing vision of Nanda Devi East peeping out through the clouds.
Advance base camp to summit camp
On 30 August, the route of first section and some part of second section of the icefall was opened and a total of 400 m rope was fixed. Next day was cloudy so we left ABC at 07.50 a.m. for securing the route. As few ropes were fixed earlier, we moved fast. That day we fixed only 300 m of rope, and returned to ABC at 2.30 p.m.
Bad weather converted the next day into a rest day for us. On 2 September we headed for final route opening and load ferry. Karan and Ban assisted us till dump point before returning to ABC. We fixed 300 m of rope on the traverse after negotiating the icefall, and left some stuff at the last point just below the hanging glacier of P. 6041 m.
Route through the icefall to the summit. (Dhruv Joshi)
Now it was time for all of us to move on the 1000 m of rope, which we had been fixing since 30 August. We reached the dump point, but the weather started worsening with white out covering the slopes of the mountain. Now an avalanche prone slope and a runnel were ahead of us. We had one 150 m rope soone of us would go ahead, anchor the rope, then others would move on it to a safe place. It took us a long time to repeat the process three times in order to reach the summit camp. We reached there at 6.00 p.m.
The route till the summit camp
From ABC the first section was a 300 m gradual walk on the glacial turf towards southwest connected to a 45 degrees and 100 m long avalanche chute followed by a rightward traverse of 20 m connected with a 35 to 40 degree slope of 250 m of long rocky ribs and a 100 m long rightward traverse linked the path up to the hanging seracs.
The second section was an icy slope of the icefall starting with a climb on 40 degrees gradient up to 50 m followed by a 250 m long rightward 60 to 30 degrees angled traverse through crevassed area. This was followed by a leftward 300 m long steep climb of about 55 to 60 degrees ravine surrounded by ice bulges adjoining the steep 300 m rightward traverse through avalanche runnels. We then arrived below the huge bergschrund below P. 6041 m. It was connected through ice-snow bulges and filled with avalanche debris coming down through various runnels.
The third section started above the bergschrund. The route consisted of rightward traverse along the left side of bergschrund towards west. The 500 m traverse on the snow slope was prone to avalanche and a complete series of runnels below the P. 6041 m met up a huge crevasse created by the slope coming down from Kuchela Dhura but connected through an avalanche channel to the higher fraction of a similar slope. The traverse was dangerously covered with powder snow.
The fourth section was again 45 to 50 degrees and a 200 m slope above the third section runnel followed by a 150 m long, 50 degrees slope through more runnels that led the path to the camping site of our summit camp at 6064 m. It was extremely close to the col formed by the rutted ridge of P. 6041 m and the slopes of Kuchela Dhura.
Crossing the icefall, Lawan gad seen below. (Wallambok Lyngdoh)
Summit camp to summit
Vijay, Chitramohan, Wallambok and I were a bit exhausted from the last day’s tedious climb. So we all decided to take rest at the summit camp. This camp site was the only place between ABC and the summit where one could camp. In the evening we planned to open few metres of route to make our next day’s work a bit trouble free, but the weather didn’t permit us to leave the summit camp. So we decided to go for the summit early next morning.
We left our summit camp at 04.00 a.m. It was a bit foggy as we started moving. We took 100 m of rope with us for belaying and for securing the route. Above the summit camp a 100 m long steady slope adjoined the col between Kuchela Dhura and P. 6041 m in westward direction. One could have a good view of Shalang valley on the left side. The second section was a 150 m long rightward bend and a 50 to 60 degrees slope joined next two consecutive 45 degrees humps of 20 m and 50 m respectively. After reaching the top of the 50 m hump there was snow turf and on the southwest of it was the final summit hump. A moderate slope of 30-35 degrees and 150 m guided us to the summit.
Kuchela Dhura seen from summit camp. (Dhruv Joshi)
All four of us attained the summit at 08.20 a.m. We stayed at the summit for eight hours waiting for the weather to clear for some good pictures. We plotted the whole route from summit to the base camp with the GPS. We returned at 05.00 p.m.to the summit camp.
First ascent of Kuchela Dhura (6250 m) in the Lawan glacier of the Kumaun Himalaya achieved by a team from Indian Mountaineering Foundation. The mountain was climbed on 6 September 2013 without the help of any high altitude supporters.
There are mountains, particularly in some ranges of the Indian Himalaya; that have grown taller in our minds. Many of them are made taller, tougher and almost legendary by an intricate veil of mythology around them. Add a rich history of heroic explorations, epic ascents and a liberal dash of romanticism to that and you have Nanda Devi. And for reasons known, yet unexplained, plutonium or pollution, political or practical; Nanda Devi and its sanctum sanctorum remain out of bounds for less fortunate alpinists like us. The sanctuary is closed since the late 1982 and it seems less than likely that its doors will open in our climbing lifetime! There is however one consolation- one can attempt to approach its mountains from outside, by climbing the outer rim of the sanctuary.
Sometime in the late 2011, I started dreaming of Nanda Devi (7816 m) and a possible attempt to its East Summit (7434 m). It all started with an email. I wrote to Roger Payne. Within a few days, I received an encouraging, informative reply from him. It is thus our pilgrimage to the eastern summit of the Blessed Goddess was conceived.
At almost 24,390 feet, Nanda Devi East is bigger, harder and higher than Nanda Kot, and is a sister summit to Nanda Devi, which lies roughly one mile to its west. ..... Tenzing Norgay, of Everest fame, stated it was the hardest thing he’d ever climbed. Our attempt was the most intense mountain experience I’ve ever had.
Pete Takeda, ‘The Secret of Nanda Devi’, Rock and Ice.
Tom Longstaff in his characteristic boldness had climbed the Nanda Devi Khal (5910 m, more popularly known as Longstaff’s Col today) back in 1905 and following his clue the daring Poles achieved the first ascent of Nanda Devi’s east summit in 1939.
The most spectacular of climbs on Nanda Devi East happened in 1994. Roger Payne and Julie-Ann Clyma did a truly Longstaff style ascent of the south ridge. There have been a few large and medium sized expeditions after Roger Payne and Julie-Ann's climb. All of them failed. The only significant attempt in the post Roger Payne era, would be Pete Takeda's light weight and fast attempt on the south ridge (2005)1.
I always felt inspired by Roger Payne and Julie-Ann's climb and their style in particular. Sometime in July 2012, during my Trans-Africa bicycle journey, I got the heartbreaking news of Roger’s passing away!
Next morning, I had a clear purpose forming in my mind. I would climb Nanda Devi East in 2013 and I would dedicate this to Roger Payne! His partner and he had set the highest standards of excellence in alpinism on this particular mountain! I am sure Sunanda Devi2 (as some of the Kumauni’s would rather call Nanda Devi East) was not happy either when she heard of that avalanche off Mt Maudit!
Choosing a Style
In March, 2013, less than two months before we were to set out for our mountain, came the mail from Pete Takeda. From the very beginning, we never took Nanda Devi East casually! But, as if being serious was not enough, Pete’s words hammered in reality and pretty much so in the right places. I am never in favour of a big team working up a mountain, fixing up ropes, ferrying loads, setting up camps etc. I do not like that mammoth, slow, prehistoric style of ‘conquering’ a mountain. Apart from our personal preferences,, we would never be able to raise the sort of funds needed for such a style. But at the same time, I do not rate myself as a super alpine style athlete as Roger Payne or Pete Takeda! Therefore, I looked for a path in between. We would go expedition style up to the Longstaff’s col and adopt Alpine style techniques beyond that.
The path in between and the team
Ours would be a small team, consisting of close friends, working in semi-alpine style, fixing and re-fixing where necessary. We would set up camps, allowing us only two days of ferrying up the 900 m snow face to the Longstaff’s Col and then employ alpine style movement swiftly up the south ridge. We would allow ourselves about two weeks, base camp to base camp, to do our job!
Nanda Devi East (7434 m). (Anindya Mukherjee)
I have been climbing in the Indian Himalaya for the past decade with Thendup Sherpa. He brought along Karna Bahadur Rai (interestingly, not a ‘sherpa’ by birth) from Darjeeling. And for the load ferries up to the col, we recruited three HAS , namely Kiran Chetri, Lhakpa Sherpa and Temba Sherpa. I wanted at least three more climbers to be included in the team, thus giving us an opportunity to split into two separate summit parties as and when necessary. It was then I invited Ananth H Vishkantiah, Suman Guhaneogy and Aloke Kumar Das to join the gang and the team was complete. With six climbers and three high altitude supporters, we could almost call ourselves the magnificent nine!
On 04 May 2013 we started our trek to the base camp, Bidalgwar. For the next five days we trekked on a nicely built trail, spending nights in Rupsiabagar, Nahar Devi, Martoli, Naspanpatti respectively and reached Bidalgwar (4300 m) on 08 May 2013. Next day was spent in organising loads and checking gear and on 10 May, all nine of us did our first ferry to the foot of Longstaff’s Col. At around 4900 m, a snow covered moraine hump would become our advance base camp in a couple of days. But from 11 May to 13 May, for three days and nights it snowed continuously. Helplessly we observed and accepted the fact that we were now left with only 12 days to climb Nanda Devi East and come back down to our base. Not a very comforting thought!
Tackling south ridge. (Anindya Mukherjee)
Looking to Lawan valley from Camp 2. (Anindya Mukherjee)
The col and the giant gendarmes
During the next two days, we ferried up and positioned ourselves at the ABC and then after only two team ferries to the Longstaff’s Col, on 17 May, we camped on the col (5910 m) itself. It took us 10 hours from ABC with loaded backpacks to reach there. Snow conditions on the slope and the nonstop elevation was tiring as was the continuous rock fall from the southern flanks of the col. This ‘col camp’ was our Camp 1. The next morning we were awarded with the much coveted view of the inner sanctuary and the main summit of Nanda Devi.
The next two days were spent in bringing up lengths of static rope from the lower sections of the snow slope below Longstaff’s Col and fixing them on pitches of the three giant pinnacles standing as sentinels of the south ridge. We found very little snow and ice on the rock pillars, especially so on the inner sanctuary side. This made our climb interesting, but thankfully without any incident. From top of the first gendarme it is a relatively straightforward yet exposed crossing to the second pinnacle. From the top of the second pinnacle an abseil brought us down on the south ridge and then a short climb to the top of the third pinnacle.
On 18 May, we had left the giant gendarmes behind us and were now very strategically located on the south ridge. It was about time and place to establish another camp. Camp 2 (6200 m) was thus pitched on the very narrow south ridge, metres beyond the third pinnacle, with great views of Nanda’s main and east summits.
Over the next three days we, relocated Camp 2 to a buttress after a steep 25 m ascent. We fixed ropes on higher sections of the south ridge and finally on 22 May, after crossing a few rock and snow steps, a gentle snow arête appeared before us. We kept moving up the snow arête and stopped just before it merged into a snow shelf. We dug ourselves a platform and established Camp 3 (6600 m).
Summit day and a failure
On 23 May, eight members started as two roped up parties (Lhakpa Sherpa had stayed back at ABC). At the very outset of our summit attempt that morning, the one striking factor was the wind. It was so strong almost like a gale. We had just this one day at our disposal to give the summit a shot. Two nights of food and fuel was all we had managed to carry on our way up. So we did not really have a choice but to move on! At around 7100 m, just before the quartzite mixed rock sections of the summit pyramid which began at a gradient of approximately 50 degrees, we stopped. Day broke bringing in the slightest of promise of warmth. But by that time, both Aloke’s and my feet were frozen solid. Ananth was complaining of a lost pair of mittens (and frozen fingers as a consequence) and Suman was finding his movement too slow. Thendup, as usual, was probably the only person in the party, who seemed unaffected by the environment. I looked around and all the stories of fatalities on Nanda Devi East came rushing back to mind. I had to take a call. Summit or safety? I had a quick discussion with Aloke, the senior most climber and we reached a unanimous decision within minutes. We were turning back. In spite of being a small, lightweight team with limited resources and time; and having overcome all the technical climbing challenges of the formidable south ridge of Nanda Devi East, we decided not to push the last 300 m to the very top.
Looking towards Nanda Devi Sanctuary from Longstaff’s Col. (Anindya Mukherjee)
Over the next two days we retraced our steps and reached base camp on 25 May. We had with us approximately 900 m of static ropes for fixing and we brought it all down.
We dedicate this effort to the great alpinist Roger Payne.
A lightweight, semi-alpine style attempt on Nanda Devi East by an Indian team in May 2013.
Trekkers to Milam glacier usually do not visit Martoli village on their way since the village is not on the main route and one has not only to take a detour, but also to negotiate a steep ascent. But, I was determined to go to Martoli, simply because, it prides itself on a splendid view of Nanda Devi peaks.
So one day, early in the morning under a clear autumn sky I started from Rilkot village – the last nights’ stay, towards Martoli. It was only a trek of four km and the gradient of the slope was not as steep as I had feared. We enjoyed our morning trek on a green grassy slope dotted with alpine flowers in full bloom to give the greenery a nice break, with Gori ganga accompanying us in a gorge which vanished from sight as we gained height. About one and half km before Martoli, I could see the mesmerising Hardeol (temple of god) peak (7150 m). I simply sat down on a flat stone to enjoy the scene.
After a reconnaissance in 1939 and a few serious attempts starting in 1967, the first ascent of Hardeol was made by a team from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police on 31 May 1978, led by S. P. Mulasi, climbing from the ridge connecting the peak to Tirsuli1. From this region began the border of the old Johar or Sauka kingdom and went up to the border with Tibet. It was a very prosperous kingdom, mainly, due to a very profitable trade with Tibet. As the kingdom was wealthy, it was repeatedly attacked by the kings of Tibet and Nepal but every time, after a short domination by these kingdoms, Sauka regained its independence. Only when the British conquered Sauka, it lost its’ independence forever and after India became free of British rule, it became a very remote part of independent India2. As an aftermath of the India-China war, the border with Tibet was closed and so was the business with Tibet. The prosperity of Martoli vanished along with many other high villages of this region as the border suddenly became an un-surpassed barrier. In 1961 Martoli had a population of four hundred and fifty that came down to a mere eighteen in 19813.
The beautifully carved doors of the ruined houses of Martoli, still somehow standing, tell tales of the old prosperity. As I started to walk, one tall gentleman approached me and asked: “Are you Mr. Chakrabarti?”
Somewhat puzzled, I replied, yes. He introduced himself as M S Bhandari, an inspector of ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) and in-charge of the ITBP camp there. He explained that he was told to look after us by his commanding officer at Munsiary during our stay there. Well, that’s great news! A government servant is certainly lowly paid (!) but enjoys certain advantages!
The gentleman took me straight to the house of Durga Singh, the head man of Martoli village and that’s when I first met Durga Singh Martolia; a tall Rajput of athletic built with a sharp–intelligent look. He looked maybe 50 yrs of age but the next day I learnt that his age was 65.
Their custom is to add the name of their village to their surname to give complete identity. So Durga Singh became Durga Singh Martolia; meaning Durga Singh from the village Martoli. Since 1982 Durga Singh was the village head-man and he lived there with his elder sister who very lovingly called him ’Duggo’.
Martoli village. (Chinmoy Chakrabarti)
All houses in Martoli were dug-out. Big square holes were dug out of the rocky land and the houses were built inside that hole. Only when a house had two stories, its top floor remained above the ground. Windows were very small to keep out the cold. This hard work to build houses was in order to avoid the very strong wind that blows from Tibet across the pass. The wind starts to blow around 10.00 a.m. and it sounds like a railway engine running at full steam. It stops suddenly around 6.00p.m.
Durga Singh offered the first floor of his house. The spotless bed was on the floor of his two storied house and was laid down on a soft woolen carpet. ‘That was a king’s’ bed, I thought, because on its head was a small window opening up to a snow peak (Bankatia, I was told) as if framed permanently. The colour of the peak changed as the morning wore into the evening. A garland of dry Baklo flowers hung outside the window. This flower has a specialty; it spread its fragrance as it dries up. With the gentle breeze the sweet fragrance wafted in all day long.
My lunches and dinners came from the ITBP camp but I would have breakfast with Durga Singh - a bowl of mashed potato sprinkled with black pepper and very lovingly prepared by his elder sister, who after preparing the food would call her brother ‘Duggo the food is getting cold’ and we would come running.
There were just five houses and 15 people to administer; so Durga Singh and his sister had a lot of leisure time. Durga Singh had a small plot for cultivation of potato, which took up his early mornings. SinghDurga Singh and I spent hours talking about Himalaya. He is an expert on Himalayan medicinal herbs and was often invited to Lucknow to advice the UP Government (then UP was not divided) on preservation of Himalayan herbs or to speak at seminars on the Himalayan herbs in different cities of UP. He had two sons and two daughters who were married and well settled in cities. Durga Singh had no financial need to toil on his land but he just could not resist the call of the mountain breeze. So, every summer he would return with his elder sister to cultivate his land and would stay still mid October to bring back his yield to his other house in Munisiary. He single handedly created a forest of Birch trees in the highlands of Martoli village which attracted some musk deer. His only regret was that he was unable to protect these endangered antlers from the poachers. He requested me to speak to the SDM of Munsiary about poaching problem.
Houses in Martoli village. (Chinmoy Chakrabarti)
On the second day of my stay, very early in the morning, I went to visit the Nanda Devi temple high up on the hill. Nobody was in the vicinity except me and the temple door was not locked; it was simply shut. As I enter the sanctum-sanctorum, an exquisite fragrance surrounded me. It was as if Devi Nanda was sitting on her throne and had hurriedly left on my intrusion; but her sweet exquisite body odour was still lingering. I looked down on the floor and saw that it was covered with dry Baklo flowers. I came out of the temple and sat dizzily on its step. Suddenly, a shaft of sunlight fell on the crest of Nanda Devi. It turned golden. Molten gold started to slide down from its crown. I sat there mesmerised.
Nanda Devi must have flown from the temple to that peak and sat down on its crest!
It was now the time to leave of Martoli. Durga Singhs’ sister gave some mashed potato for the road. Durga Singh walked alongside me till the end of the village. After descending and reaching the main path to Milam, I looked back. Most probably I would never return to Martoli village. Durga Singh also knew that. So I turned back and saw Durga Singh Martolia, standing on the edge of the ridge. He waved at me; I felt the gentle touch of his rough palm on my shoulder again and a gaze full of love and compassion. Tears wailed up in my eyes.
In that instant, I knew, I have a home in deep of the Himalaya, in a magnificent village called Martoli, inside a cozy room owned by my elder brother known as Durga Singh Martolia.
Rato ko chanlewale rahe jaye thak ke jis dam,
Ummid unki meri tuta huya diya ho.
Bijli chamak ke inko kutia meri dekha de,
Jab aasma me harsu badal ghera huya ho…..Dr. Muhammad Iqubal.
(When the night-traveler is exhausted/ his only hope is the light of my broken lampshade. / When the stormy-cloud covers the sky / please show him my broken hut by lighting).
Post Script: Durga Singh is still alive and active. He is around 80 now. But every summer he still goes to Martoli to till his land. His forest of birch trees has expanded now to around 100000 trees with more than a dozen Musk deer. His elder sister is also alive. He lives in Munsiary and remembers every detail of my visit 16 yrs ago. I had a talk with him over his cell phone on 20 April 2013. I told him about my published book on Pithoragarh where he was mentioned in detail and about this article.
He was very pleased.
A biographical sketch of a resident of Kumaun, Durga Singh Martolia who is an expert on Himalayan medicinal herbs and is also instrumental in growing a large birch forest containing almost a hundred thousand trees around Martoli village of the Milam valley.
Partha Pratim Mitra
The sun dies down in the west,
The mountains flash with rosy light
And high aloft great Nanda Devi
Glows like a lighted taper.
O Brahma! O Sun born of the lotus
Flower! O glory of the down! We
Yield the thankfulness for this day.Ven Der Sleen
Nanda Devi region is the mysterious mountain realm of the mighty goddess of Garhwal. Nanda Devi, incarnation of goddess Durga, is feared and revered and loved as no other goddess is. The history of legends around the goddess has always fascinated me.
I have always been fascinated by the mountaineering literature on Nanda Devi and her fairyland. The classic journeys and adventures of the pioneers like W.W. Graham, Dr. T.G. Longstaff, Hugh Ruttledge, Peter Oliver, and David Campbell have ignited my imagination. Inspired by the Garhwali myths related with ‘Usha of the Himalaya’ and by the epic journey of Eric Shipton my dream finally evolved in an expedition.
A team of five members of Himangan left Joshimath in October 2012 to explore the hitherto unknown valley and a virgin pass beyond North Hanuman basin (at the rim of upper Dharansi Plateau). Only Shipton had done major survey work throughout the inner sanctuary. He wanted to summit Dunagiri from Rhamani glacier side but could not. By this valiant attempt he was able to reach a col and observe for the first time an unsurpassable vista. He writes in his survey report –
‘...The following day we managed to reach a col nearly 20,000 ft. high, which connects the southwest ridge of Dunagiri with a peak which on the old one-inch maps bore the strange name ‘Niti No.3’. On the northern side of the col the ground fell away with tremendous steepness to the Tolma glen, and we found ourselves looking straight down to Suraithota in the Dhauli valley1.
Through scantily described from an explorer’s point of view, Shipton’s exploration fascinated and inspired me. Then I came across H.W. Tilman’s article ‘Nanda Devi and the sources of Ganges’2. Since no expedition had ever ventured into that terrain, our team relied upon Shipton’s scanty survey report.
Many mountaineers believed that the Upper Dharansi Plateau and the North Hanuman Basin was hitherto untrodden because these were out of Shipton’s survey work and his scanty reports. Harish Kapadia said that he did not have any information on the terrain and encouraged us to consult maps and explore a new area. These words gave us inspiration and an expedition was born.
Our expedition had the following objectives:
Way to Hanuman Khal, west face of Dunagiri and P. 6029 m in the background. (Partha Pratim Mitra)
On 5 October 2012 we drove up from Joshimath to Lata village. We climbed from the road head to upper Lata village (2317 m) on a well cemented track. We were forced to stay at the primary school of the village due to some porter problems which were resolved soon after.
We visited the famous Nanda Devi temple with Mukesh Singh Power of Tolma village. On the way back a few elderly villagers were surprised to know our plan because they had no idea about North upper plateau of Dharansi Kharak. After some argument we assured them that we would go ahead only if we found the terrain accessible.
On 6 October, we started early on Dhauli Ganga’s right bank. It was a shaded walk through pine, deodar and after one and half hours we reached at Belta Kharak. After a strenuous climb of 300 m, we finally reached Lata Kharak (3689 m). The trail zigzags up the steep slopes through beautiful forest. On the top of the ridge we came across a forest hut that was built in 1995. From the hut, we observed Ronti (6063 m), Bethartoli (6352 m), Nanda Ghunti (6309 m), Trisul I (7120 m), Dunagiri (7066 m), Ghori Parvat (6709m), Kuari Pass (4264m) and other named and unnamed peaks.
On 7 October, leaving Lata Kharak we walked along the grassy juniper filled steep path. Towering above all the peaks to the south stood the white, shining dome of Bethartoli (6352 m). We turned left and in the dense mist, traversed the dangerous cliff and passed through a narrow scree filled slope. Then we negotiated a 600 sharp rock wall to reach a narrow high point - Sath Kula Dhar.
From that point we identified many peaks such as Chaukhamba, Mana (7272 m), Nilkantha (6596 m) and others in the west. Ghori Parvat (6709 m), Hathi Parvat (6727 m), Sapta Parvat of Hemkund Sahib and others were to the north-west. Bethartoli (6352 m), Devisthan I (6678 m), Trisul I (7120 m), Nanda Ghunti (6309 m) were to the south. But the sight that held us spellbound was the massif of Nanda Devi (7816 m) towards the east, queen among mountains, holding her head erect in the vast blue canvas. I remembered the famous lines from ‘Grongar Hill’ by John Dyer:
Now I gain the mountains’ brow
What a landscape lies below!
No clouds, no vapours intervene
But the gay, the open scene
Does the face of nature show
In all the hues of heaven’s bow.’
Then the valley cloud covered the view within twenty minutes. The echoes of roaring torrents of the Rishi below could make most of us falter on the very narrow path. After pulling over 600 m in a grass, boulder filled gully, we reached Dharanshi pass (4237 m), a name given by Eric Shipton to change it from the old name Barf kina Dhar3. Across the pass we had to traverse and descend through a broad grassy gully to a grazing ground known as Dharanshi Kharak, used in summer by the shepherds of Tolma and Lata. Everyone was exhausted so I decided to call it a day and pitched tents in the camping ground. It drizzled throughout the night.
On 8 October, weather did not improve and thus restricted our views from the meadow. A drizzle started in the afternoon and very soon turned into a thunder shower. In the evening we sat discussed plans to reach Tolma-Tarak valley after finding a virgin pass on the hitherto unknown North Hanuman Basin.
On 9 October, the vast alps were plastered as it had snowed through the previous night. The weather did not improve. The mountain vistas were covered under a veil of clouds. But we had to get going as every day was crucial and progress, however slow, was mandatory. So we kept moving up north along Upper Dharansi plateau. A steep climb of approx 300 m through a grassy zone led to the top of a moraine wall followed by a left sided delicate traverse for two km. At the end of it we descended through treacherous grass and boulder mixed zone. Next we were climbed and traversed a dangerous cliff.
We then negotiated a few humps in quick succession followed by a steep climb for 150 m. The valley cloud suddenly inched up from southern side. The Upper Dharansi plateau is girdled by mountain ridges on three sides. So once clouds enter the solitary plateau, weather remains unchanged until the thicket cloud fully precipitates. Nearly five hours of ceaseless trekking across the ravine of the plateau exhausted us and the dark clouds were terrifying of . In poor visibility and blowing wind we kept climbing to a highly elevated ridge. Then we descended to the snow covered boulder zone. We kept traversing to western side on a highly exposed slope of gravel and soft snow that was difficult to hold on to.
Thereafter we started to climb a high moraine wall and an hour later we were upon the high point of the ridge. We were rewarded by a panoramic view of the horizon. Our map suggested that Dunagiri (7066 m) was on our north, unnamed peak (6029 m) and Hanuman (6075 m) on our northeast, Trisul I (7120 m), Mrigthuni (6855 m), Devtoli (6788 m), Maiktoli (6803 m), Devisthan I (6678 m), Devisthan II (6529 m) and many others on the south. We also observed the very distant dense forest territory of Dibrugheta (3350 m).
But most thrilling was the view of the North Hanuman Basin with western face of Hanuman(6075 m). This also brought some assurance that we were on the right track.
We observed a horrible blackish cracked part of the Hanuman glacier from which stream emerged was to finally meet the Rishi ganga. I thought of naming the stream as ‘Hanuman Gad’.
We had thought that if we moved along the stream on our right side towards northeast up to the snout of Hanuman Gad, then we would reach the horribly cracked Hanuman glacier. But there was no way to move ahead. This is the terminal part of the North Hanuman Basin. The Hanuman glacier encompasses Dunagiri, an unnamed peak and Hanuman which are on a semi circled northern ridge. But the ridge top from where we observed turned to the southwest after adjoining another ridge. Taking bearings from the contour map and compass we decided to avoid the horrible glacier zone and move towards this ridge to proceed. As we moved farther, the dangerous glacier was visible on the right. Then we climbed up a highly exposed steep moraine wall followed by a left side traverse and descended to a narrow boulder zone. Every few second stones and gravel tumbled down.
It began to snow. But we did not waste time and kept moving through boulder mixed moraine zone. As we went higher a depression became quite prominent. This depression looked like a pass linking the southwest ridge and northern semicircle ridge. But it was not marked on the Survey of India map. As this was confusing, we decided to explore the pass.
The natural elevation forced us to climb and traverse the treacherous slope. To our left were two gaps at the depression on the linking ridge and to the right was the ugly black rock and old frozen snow of Hanuman glacier.
The weather could have turned at any time so I sent Mukesh Singh to scout the best route of the two. He reported that the second gap was safe to proceed. So we all followed Mukesh Singh and carefully climbed up a highly exposed moraine wall.
At about 2.40 p.m., we reached the narrow second gap of the pass. It was the moment of delight, because perhaps no human being had set foot on this before us. The wind was blowing and it started to snow. The exquisitely beautiful mountain vista of southern side soon vanished under a veil of strato-cumulous cloud. The unknown destination on the western side was not visible due to mist and clouds. From our maps and compass, we knew this would lead us towards northeast side Hanuman peak and its glacier. I decided to name this virgin pass ‘Hanuman Khal’ which is at c. 5050 m.
Apart from some descriptions by Murray4 and Chandekar5 in their respective reports, we have no authentic information about Hanuman peak’s adjacent territory. Naturally the North Hanuman Basin was mystery to us.
The weather quickly turned into heavy snowfall. In spite of the weather and poor visibility we prepared to cross the pass as soon as possible. The Survey of India map has ‘a major blank’ between Hanuman glacier and Tolma-Tarak valley. But we took the crucial decision to descend towards the untrodden western territory. After the ‘puja’ ceremony on the pass, we found a stream emerging from Hanuman glacier and flowing towards west. Another stream which emerged from Dunagiri glacier also flowed west.
We kept descending rapidly towards the uncertainties of the western territory. Bad weather restricted our view and approach. Mukesh Singh tried to find the route by constantly scanning the flow of two streams.
Next we descended approx 300 m and traversed a snow covered spur. Moving an hour we saw two streams meeting and forming a nala. We crossed the terrible current of the nala and reached the base of a slippery rock wall which we climbed. Around 6.00 p.m. we found a small flat area full of shrubs and decided to camp.
This typical shrub is locally called ‘Tasku’. I thought of naming the campsite as ‘Tasku Kharak’. Weather improved giving us partial views of Dunagiri west face and a long ridge which turned towards southwest. According to our map, Tarak Khal (4596 m) is on the western end of that ridge.
We started at 8.00 a.m., on the clear, bright morning of 10 October. We descended through a steep rock fall zone to reach the nala. Across the nala we climbed an exposed rock wall followed by a delicate traverse leading to a thick forest. Over the next two hours we had to cross the unrestrained torrent of the nala six times finally reaching the bottom of a steep rock wall which we carefully climbed. The faint trail continued first through rhododendron bushes and then on rocky zone. As the trail turned after a traverse, we reached a rocky slope.
After negotiating the slope we found a narrow overhang. Meanwhile the weather suddenly turned bad and we decided to camp at the base of the overhang. This type of overhang is locally called ‘Dugla’. So I thought to propose the name of the camp as ‘Dugla Udiar’ and the nala as ‘Dugla Gad’.
11 October morning was quite clear and we struggled upwards. After we gained about 350 m within a few hours we reached a vantage point from which we rewarded with a magnificent view of a valley. Dugla Gad is the main water resource of this pristine hidden valley. I thus decided to call this little valley as ‘Dugla Gad valley’.
We started our trek at 7.00 a.m. and crossed Dugla Gad after the initial descent. We negotiated a a vast boulder zone and then started climbing a steep slope followed by a sharply rising arête of rock. After three hours of continuous climbing we reached the ridge top and were rewarded with a view of the western summit of majestic Dunagiri. We also saw the Tarak Khal on the extreme western end of the semi circled ridge which is linked with the western wall of Dunagiri.
The wind was extremely strong so we descended quickly to the other side and reached an alluvial meadow full of shrubs where we decided to camp. This shrub is locally called vetara so we called this campsite ‘Vetara Kharak’.
On 12 October, we left camp at 9.00 a.m. It took us four hours to climb the three treacherous ridges towards northwest and we reached a small clearing. We immediately started climbing the steep slope of the frontal ridge. At 2.45 p.m. we were finally atop Tarak Khal (4996 m). We were getting closer to our goal. We were blessed by majestic view of Dunagiri, unnamed peak, Hanuman, ‘Hanuman Khal’ and ‘Dugla Gad’ valley.
We descended a steep grassy slope. By five in the afternoon the team reached at Purchani Udiar (3500 m).
Morning was cloudy and visibility worse on 13 October. We kept descending towards northwest thorough pine, deodar and Bhoj forests. After four hours of moving from our last night’s camp we reached Kanchla Kharak (3195 m) for lunch. Then we hiked to Hissa Udiar (2900 m). This was our last camp.
On 14 October we trekked to Tolma village which took two hours and the same day afternoon we reached Joshimath via Lata.
Thus we completed a journey across the untrodden areas between the North Hanuman Basin and Tolma-Tarak valley. It was a circuitous route crossing the hitherto unknown Hanuman Khal and finally reaching the road head of Lata. We hope that our exploration will open up new mountaineering and adventure possibilities in the realm of goddess Nanda Devi.
Exploration of the North Hanuman Basin and first crossing of ‘Hanuman Khal’ in the outer sanctuary area of Nanda Devi by a team from Kolkata in October 2012.
No scenery, in my opinion, presents such sublime and delightful contrasts. Below lies plains, a picture of rural loveliness and repose; the surface is covered with the richest cultivation irrigated by streams which descend from perennial snows, and interspersed with homesteads buried in the midst of groves and fruit trees. Turning from this scene of peaceful beauty, the stern majestic hills confront us; their sides are furrowed with precipitous water-courses; forests of oak clothe their flanks, and higher up give place to gloomy and funereal pines; above all are wastes of snow, or pyramidal masses of granite too perpendicular for the snow to rest on.
Mr. Barnes, on Dhaula Dhar and Chhota Bangahal: p.9
Gazetteer of the Kangra District, Part I. Kangra (1883-84)
The Dhaula Dhar range, from its junction with the Pir Panjal range, proceeds east-northeast, defining the Ravi and the Beas river watersheds. The range meets the Bara Bangahal ridge and continues northeast till P. 4602 m, (Dainasar peak) at the foot of which lies the historic Dainasar lake. This part of the range is crossed by the old Bajauri pass to a point below the Sari pass to form a boundary between Bangahal and Kullu. From the Dainasar peak, the range takes an almost 90 degree turn to the north to be called ‘the Beas Kundi Dhar’ and ends near the Taintu pass or Mukerbeh peak. Down below in the plains, the road from Mandi to Kullu-Manali also takes a sharp northerly turn, almost parallel to the range.
This range was recognised by General Cunningham, in his account of The Great Mountain Chains of the Punjab as the first part of the chain which designates the outer Himalaya.
‘Geography makes history all the world over, and nowhere is this more palpably true than in the Himalaya,’ wrote Captain Todd, mentioning legends and history of the Kullu, Mandi and Kangra kings who ruled the states. (Bruce, p.203) As the history stretches in centuries it is futile to recall all the kings and rajas. Some salient aspects of the history of these high valleys explain few events.
Bara and Chhota Bangahal Map 2013
One of the many valleys ruled by Kullu rajas was the Bangahali kingdom. Today little is known about how these valleys were given the unusual name of Bangahal. The Gazetteer mentions that ‘progenitor of the family (that ruled Kullu) is stated to have been one Behangamani, brother of a Kulu prince...... whose family ruled for eighty-seven generations till deposed by the Sikhs in 1840.’ ‘Behangamani’ dynasty was the origin of the title Bangahal. The history of the Rajas and princes is too complicated to be of any use for those interested in its mountains. (Gazetteer II, p.16)
Just as several Queens were beheaded in European history, the Bangahali kingdom has a history of many queens forced to perform sati (being burnt on the funeral pyre with her dead husband). ‘To these instances of cruelty may be added others, fairly numerous according to tradition, where queens were condemned to be buried alive on the faintest suspicion of infidelity’. (Gazetteer I, p. 28)
We can safely get away from this gory history with an edict from Mr Louis Dane (former Commissioner of Kullu and one who pioneered the Pin-Parvati pass trail to Spiti). He writes that ‘there is a large flat stone below Nagar in rice lands which was used as place for decapitation, and according to all accounts it did not often remain long unused’. (Gazetteer I, p. 28)
The Bara Bangahal (larger Bangahal) is an enclosed valley covered by high ridges on three sides, where a passage is possible only through a high pass when not snow bound. The Ravi river originates from many large and small glaciers in the valley and drains west to Chamba, making a deep gorge. Till date except for a scary foot track high above on walls, no other route exists here.
To the south of the Bara Bangahal wall is the Chhota Bangahal, (smaller Bangahal), drained by the river valleys of Uhl and Lambadag. It contains several villages with ‘Kothi Sowar’ (present day Kothi-Kud) as its principle village. Pirthi Pal, the last raja of Bangahal was treacherously murdered at Mandi by his father-in-law, Sudh Sen, Raja of Mandi. That was the end of a separate kingdom, and Bara, Chhota and Bir Bangahal became parts of the kingdoms of Kullu, Mandi and Kangra. (Gazetteer II, p. 20)
Chhota Bangahal contained several valuable metal and ore mines. The early Gazetteers, in 1882-83, mentions eight iron mines yielding 90 ‘mounds’ a year. The mining extended for several kms along the banks of the Uhl river. Some of the ore from these mines was sent to England in 1858 and this variety was found to be as excellent as the product of the best mines of Sweden. In the lower valleys there were salt mines at Drang and Komadh.
The legendary soldier-mountaineer Lt Col. The Hon. Charles G Bruce was one of the first mountaineers to travel in Mandi and Kullu in 1912, with his wife and ‘Fuhrer’ (oh, no this was far too early for Adolf Hitler, he was accompanied by a Swiss guide named Heinrich Fuhrer!). Being on leave Bruce travelled leisurely through the foothills observing the Dhaula Dhar and Bangahal range. He complained though, ‘How often I felt like the retired Colonel who used to engage a bugler to play the reveille outside his door every morning at six o’clock, and then cuss him freely and go to sleep again.’ (Bruce, p 2)
In 2004, I had been to the inner parts of the Bara Bangahal1. Scared to cross the Ravi gorge, rightfully, we exited by challenging Nikora pass to Kugti and a long trudge to reach Chamba. Now after nine years I was back with two companions older but fitter than me at 68!
We decided to explore the charms of Chhota Bangahal. At first we entered the Uhl river valley from Baragram to Thamser pass, quite literally crossing thousands of sheep returning from higher pastures. A gaddi coming from the opposite direction will delay your walk as they have the right of passage! It rained every evening but not enough to be threatening. We discussed a plan of traversing from high pasture land of Panhartu to Lohardi over a high route. It proved impossible to get a guide who would lead us over a complicated maze of valleys. Returning to Rajgundha (2450 m), the former seat of the Bangahali kings, we enjoyed few days at the lovely forest rest house and explored a two day walk across the high ridge in the west to hot springs at Tarwani, at the foot of Jalsu pass.
We retreated to Baragram (2370 m) and by bus to Barot. Barot with Multhan, across a bridge, is developing into a tourist resort for vacation hungry people from the plains. Trout fishing here is in plenty. Now we entered the Lambadag river valley. Lohardi (6 km) was a largish village but the road carried ahead due to a Hydro project, till the foot of Polang. As we stood on the road with all our luggage, ladies returning home enquired and went out of their way to help us to get mules organised for our trek. At head of this valley were Gairu Jot (4680 m) and Makori Jot (4460 m) passes crossing into the Bara Bangahal and hence the traffic of returning gaddis continued. On the west near the villages of Chherna and Shatyar is a beautiful forest rest house which many shikaris and trout fishing parties have enjoyed.
The ladies while helping us, narrated the story of the Dainasar lake, where we were headed. The lake is at 4290 m and is on the divide between the Chhota Bangahal and Kullu. Locals make a pilgrimage once a year in September to take a bath which is associated with fertility. A man from Polang reached the lake, leaving his pregnant wife at home. He prayed for twins while taking a bath in the lake and he deposited two golden earrings as offering. His wish was granted and he was blessed with two boys after few months. But a thought occurred to him that his wife was pregnant even before he went to Dainasar so gods had not played a major role! He went to the lake trying claim gold rings back. He found them easily, blood red in colour, and reached home to find the twins dead for this offence. Since then Dainasar lake is a place for fertility, even if you have not taken any action before going there! However the true importance of the lake and the peak lies in its location at the Dhaula Dhar knot, where it ends and Kullu range start.
On 3 October 2013 we walked leisurely through Polang observing activities and three-day celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary which falls on 2 October. Soon we were in wilderness and proceeded along a nala. After a camp we crossed a bridge and from here it was 1000 m (five hours) steep climb, mercifully on a zig-zag trail. Mules had to be unloaded at two places to make them cross. On top of the ridge was a vast camping ground of Panyali Got (3320 m) but water was some distance away.
Dainasar lake (4290 m) in Chhota Bangahal. (Kanu Pomal)
‘Brocken Spectre’ at Sari Jot. (Harish Kapadia)
The trail continued, climbing but now gently. As we gained altitude, trees disappeared and vast open valleys allowed for a great view. Without stretching ourselves a lot we were at Marhi camp (4000 m) one of the many possible camps before reaching the lake. That evening nature presented a grand show of clouds, fog, distant mountain views and deep valleys.
L to R Indrasan and Deo Tibba. (Harish Kapadia)
6 October was going to be a long day, but it turned out far longer than we had anticipated. At first we climbed to the lake, a lovely bowl at foot of the Dainasar peak. There was a small temple and place to worship. There is another lake higher up across the ridge but we chose not to visit it. Soon we turned southeast and crossed Dainasar pass (4450 m) to the Sari dhar in the east. This ridge descends south to Sari Jot, forming the boundary between Kullu and Bangahal. As the ridge has a steep drop, the trail proceeds in a roundabout way. Huge rock slabs near the Dainasar pass would keep rock climbers busy for months if they ever come. Soon thick fog enveloped us and the confusion began. Mules had followed another route from the lower camp and we were to meet up at Sari Jot (3715 m).
Peaks of Kullu, Dibibokri and Parvati area seen from Sari Jot (3715 m). (Harish Kapadia)
We followed the guide who now sheepishly told us that he had not been on this trail before but had discussed it with a gaddi well before embarking. Soon we were lost and Vijay, as he is known to, separated from the party and rushed ahead. Exposed traverses, steep rocky descents and shouting for Vijay was the order of the day. Finally we hit the trail but by then Vijay was shouting almost half way down the valley. Our guide showed lots of energy and finally got us all together, almost at dusk. We decided to wait at a safe place and finally at about 8 pm in pitch darkness, the guide returned with our porters, some torches and water. It was 13 hour day. Tea, hot food and tent never sounded better.
As observed, Sari Jot and Dainasar pass are on the same ridge, which is the divide between Bangahal and Kullu hence a grand view of Kullu peaks opened out the next day. Indrasan, Deo Tibba, Inder Killa, Parvati Parvat, and several other peaks were in view. Sari Jot, on a sharp ridge, also offered a range of ‘Brocken Spectre’ as the strong sun of Bangahal projected us on the clouds in Kullu. To see ourselves projected in a circular rainbow and move with it is, if you pardon the pun, a moving experience.
On 9 October we descended 1500 m on a far better trail to Kullu, passing gorgeous forest, grazing grounds into a deep valley. Night was spent at Tiun and we continued our descent with children going to school at Kalang, further 1000 m down.
As we reached the road head, now the reveille was playing in our mind, calling us to civilisation and its temptations.
Members: Harish Kapadia (68), Kanu Pomal (69) and Vijay Kothari (70)
Period: 20 September to 11 October 2013
A trek from Chhota Bangahal to Dainasar lake (4290 m).
During 20 July - 10 August 2013 we participated in ‘Climbathon 2013’, an event organised and sponsored by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. We were three people from Romania: Mihnea Prundeanu and I - both guides and Vasile Dumitrica, a student. There was one instructor from Scotland/USA – Dr. Paul Schweizer and the rest were from India.
The event took place on the Bara Shigri area and had the objectives of exchange of information between Indian mountaineers and Western mountaineers and focus on alpine style ascents of several peaks in the area. With a total of seven Indian and three foreign instructors and over 60 participants, of which, besides Indians there was one from Brazil, one from Romania and one from Italy, this was quite a large and complex event.
Khhang Shiling from Concordia at the Bara Shigri glacier. (M Prundeanu)
After initial acclimatisation on way to and around the snout of the glacier we moved to set up a base camp on the Concordia via an intermediate camp. After three days of preparations and ice climbing training we split into several teams, each with one instructor in charge. Each team was allotted to a group and had chosen an objective.
Khhang Shiling summit slopes. (Prerna Dangi)
Our group initially chose Shigri Parbat (6536 m) and we were supposed to attempt it from the southeast face by four separate lines - one team per line. The three teams led by, Prundeanu Schweizer and me were planning to climb alpine style while the fourth team led by Kusang Sherpa was planning to fix ropes on their chosen line. Arriving on location first the team led by Kusang Sherpa deemed the original line they chose too dangerous and proceeded to fix lines across the itinerary envisaged by us. Once our teams arrived at ABC a day later we deemed the climb unsafe in the given conditions . As each team leader was free to choose their objectives and having resolved that the group I was leading would not benefit from joining Kusang Sherpa’s already numerous group up the fixed lines I communicated to the Concordia BC that I was reserving my decision until later that evening.
Upon an analysis of the terrain and available options I decided to switch objectives and focus instead on an ascent of Khhang Shiling (6360 m)1 by its northeast face (right opposite the original objective). Prundeanu and his team decided to join me as the line he originally chose was threatened by rock fall. Schweizer decided to wait and maybe attempt Shigri Parbat later as he was still hoping for an alpine ascent of that peak. His team got divided between Prundeanu’s and mine with one member joining Kusang Sherpa and one member choosing to remain in the camp. On 4 August we left the ABC around 2.00 a.m. and reached the summit around 7.30 a.m. by two slightly different variations of the same route, with nine people summiting. We were informed that this was a first ascent of the face. We returned to Concordia BC on 5 August. The summiteers were: Cosmin Andron, Mihnea Prundeanu, Vasile Dumitrica (Romania), Angel Robledo (U.K.), Karan Kaushik, Bharat Bhusan, Bhupesh Kumar, Subrata Chakraborty, Prerna Dangi (India).
Schweizer did not have the opportunity to attempt Shigri Parbat and returned with us to BC. During the same period other Indian teams using fixed ropes reached Shigri Parbat, Kullu Pumori and made two first ascents of two other peaks.
On 9 August, following the Climbathon event and after our return to Manali, Mihnea Prundeanu, Vasile Dumitrica and I attempted Kullu Makalu (6349 m) by its unclimbed north face. Our attempt was thwarted by a massive rockfall that hit us while nearly half way up the face. While I sustained only minor hits on my arm, back and legs and Vasile got away unscathed, Mihnea had a serious spinal injury which had us rushing down the face and crawling through the night to the safety of our BC. Later diagnosis back in Romania showed a hairline fracture of L5 vertebra and a damaged sciatic nerve but with a good recovery prognosis.
Climbers on the right hand variation of Khhang Shiling. Kullu Pumori in the background. (Angel Robledo)
Kullu Makalu. (Cosmin Andron)
Both climbs were made and attempted in alpine style. Luckily all three of us ended up enjoying beers in Manali several days later.
Khhang Shiling (6360 m), new route by northeast face and an attempt on Kullu Makalu, also known as Lal Quila (6349 m) by a small team from Romania.
Paul Ramsden and I were ready to go. Permits had been granted, tickets bought and bureaucratic hurdles overcome. Pre-expedition excitement was building. And then, the month before departure we received an e-mail from Andrey Muryshev, the leader of one of only two expeditions that had enjoyed a good view of our intended objective, the Northeast Pillar, or Prow, of Shiva (6142 m).
‘Frankly I cannot imagine how you will do it. Do you mean northwest buttress? It is c. 700 m of climbing after the col and it is northwest side in October – all the rock will be frozen. From the other hand, the ice will be scarce as the buttress is very steep. So it will be very hard dry tooling and very hard protection. I saw your route on Siguniang – it is much easier.’
And Bruno Moretti, the leader of an expedition that had a good view of the east side in 2010 had already suggested that the rock was likely to be terrible.
All in all it didn’t paint that positive a picture. But the photos Andrey and Bruno had kindly shared with us spoke for themselves. Shiva is an isolated 6000 m peak in the Pangi district of the Indian Himalaya. Bruno felt the Prow stood out as the best line in the area and Andrey’s e-mail ended by saying he thought it was ‘inspiring’. That was good enough for us. I did wonder if we were up to it but loose rock, difficult climbing or whatever the line was such that we had to give it a go.
The Pangi district borders Kashmir and the troubles there have impeded access until recently. Now though the political situation is better, roads are being blasted ever further into the Indian Himalaya and mountains such as Shiva are accessible in 30 day trips from the UK. And to further ease matters in 2012 some economy flights came with a free 46 kg baggage allowance. Times have certainly changed since my early trips to India where the first couple of days would be spent enduring bureaucratic misery retrieving freighted equipment from the Delhi customs warehouse. With a 46 kg allowance all our equipment fitted easily in the hold and with mountain gas cylinders now being available in India life is certainly a lot easier than it used to be.
Prow of Shiva. Route of ascent (Mick Fowler)
Steve Burns and Ian Cartwright made up our four man team and in late September we were marvelling at the new competition standard climbing wall at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation building before heading off on a night drive to the ‘honeymoon town’ (as our Liaison Officer called it) of Manali in the Himalayan foothills. From here it was a long day’s drive over the Rohtang pass and then along a remarkable road down the Chenab valley to eventually turn off and reach the road head at the small village of Saichu. As far as we knew we were only the second mountaineering expedition, after Bruno Moretti in 2010, to visit this valley.
The weather seemed set fine and as water levels were low, we had understood that it would be possible to use mules or horses to carry our equipment all the way up to a base camp at 3900 m below the east face of Shiva. As ever though planning on Himalayan trips has to be able to cope with a little flexibility. The first day was idyllic trekking through grazing pastures and deciduous forests but by evening the valley forked and it had become clear that the fork we needed to follow, the Tarundi valley, was so full of dense, shrub like bushes that the horses could go no further. Porters were summoned and by a combination of portering and us load carrying base camp was established in a fine spot just above the bush line. Above us Shiva was clearly visible with the Prow looking even more inspiring than we had expected. We had clearly come across something rather special. And, through the binoculars, it did seem as if the rock on the steep section might not be as bad as we had been led to expect.
First though we had to acclimatise. And an unclimbed 5500 m summit on the ridge leading north from the Prow gave an obvious objective at just the right height. The views from the top were mouth watering. We could see that there were a few uncertainties about getting onto the crest and up to the foot of the steepest section but the most interesting discovery was that the Prow itself really did appear to be composed of good quality granite with occasional good cracks. It was one of those objectives that we both knew we would have to come back to if we didn’t get up this time.
Back at base camp Brittam our cook and Devraj the kitchen boy were probably the finest we have ever had on a trip and after a rest day during which we were fortified with large quantities of fine food it was time to get used to a diet of small quantities of mountain food and live off blubber accumulated over the year since my previous Himalayan exertion (two years in Paul’s case).
Paul Ramsden acclimatising on P. 5500 m. (Mick Fowler)
Mick Fowler with head-on slope approaching crest on Day 3. (Paul Ramsden)
Crossing the icefall. (Mick Fowler)
PR travesing just below steepenng of buttress
So on 5 October, after tackling the complex glacial approach we pitched our little tent at the foot of the east face. The obvious first difficulty was getting over a bergschrund to establish ourselves in couloirs leading to the crest at the point where it steepened towards the Prow. Juggling with job, family et al means that I only manage one mountaineering expedition per year and it always takes a pitch or two to settle back into the swing of things. Being an east face an early start was necessary and 1.00 a.m. found me experiencing a harsh re-introduction to mountaineering by tackling a vertical shale wall with a slanting, overhanging wall of iron hard ice on top. I certainly felt fully exercised by the time I pulled out into an ice runnel on the slope above. Back in England I had envisaged that it would be straightforward to gain the crest of the buttress below the Prow. In reality though the angle of the approach face was considerably steeper than I had expected and the combination of awful rock and powder snow made for sections of tricky, poorly protected climbing. The amazing variation in the snow depending on the direction of the slope added further to the challenge with north facing areas being covered in remarkably deep and remarkably steep powder.
‘It rubbish here. Just a collapsing knife edge’
Paul was in the lead and his comments were not encouraging.
We had reached the ridge at 9.00 a.m. just as the snow was beginning to soften badly.
An interval followed during which I could pick out some energetic ‘a cheval’ activity going on as Paul moved slowly to a slightly more amenable spot. By the time he had brought me up the Ramsden face was smiling.
‘It’s soft right the way down. Could be good for the tent.’
And it was. By about 10.00 a.m. a section of the knife edge had been flattened, the tent pitched and a belay of sorts constructed around a large snow bollard. It looked as if the rope would probably cut right through it like a cheese wire if put under any strain but that was not the sort of thought that we wanted to clutter our minds with as we lay relaxing and reading our books for the day. Above us the soft snow ridge looked challenging but the mixed buttress which started perhaps 150 m above us looked to offer perfect, safe climbing in a position of the kind Paul and I scour the earth to find.
The leaning tent bivi. (Mick Fowler)
By mid afternoon the following day the soft snow was behind us, we were underway on the Prow proper and had reached a small balcony just on the east side of the crest. Below it the ground overhung steadily for at least 500 m while round on the cold northwest side the way was barred by a completely smooth 75 degree rock slab with an intermittent thin covering of verglas and powder. The only way up seemed to be an overhanging fault line above the balcony, but that could be seen to cross the crest after perhaps 10 m and then disappear under the verglas and snow sticking to the slab. Paul and I prefer to carry our sacks wherever possible but this was clearly one of those possible ‘stopper’ pitches where a sack-less leader was called for. I watched nervously as Paul aided the overhang and moved more precariously on up the fault-line. Looking around there really wasn’t anywhere else obvious to go. Bolts could solve the problem but we both feel strongly that they have no place in exploratory mountaineering.
We were right on the crest of the buttress and if we couldn’t do this pitch then that could well be the end of our attempt. All our dreams would end here. My heart was in my mouth as Paul moved up round the crest but he just kept on going. Brilliant! The fault-line clearly continued in some way up the slab and eventually the shout came for me to follow. The fault did continue but in a distressingly thin manner. It was a fine lead by Paul and it left us with a good feeling. We had agreed to explore this section in the afternoon and return to bivouac on the balcony ledge but it still felt somehow strange to be leaving the sacks and following the pitch without being weighted down by a sack. We tend to climb strictly with alternate leads and with enough daylight remaining it seemed sensible for me to lead another pitch even though this would leave us with two pitches to jumar up in the morning. And we both hate jumaring. It feels unethical somehow; all that hanging about on ropes instead of climbing.
Weather wise it seemed we had timed things just right. Every morning the sky was clear and the weather glorious and every afternoon it clouded over with a gradually increasing amount of snow. It was very cold but the morning sun was great for thawing us out and infusing a sense of great happiness. The day above our nose to tail balcony bivouac was one of the finest I have enjoyed in the mountains. Out there on the crest of the most eye catching feature in the area, the climbing started with absolutely perfect ice choked granite cracks and continued with memorably thin ice on steep slabs which were not unlike a lean day on the harder slab routes on Ben Nevis. By late afternoon a nose to tail bivouac ledge again provided a lie down bivouac and the possibility of sound sleep with a perfect view from our bedroom. People sometimes ask me why Paul and I never go for the headline grabbing objectives on bigger mountains. Here, on this wonderful climb in a rarely visited part of the Himalaya we had our answer. Shiva was giving us everything that we could possibly want from our mountaineering – an unclimbed magic line, visible from afar, going straight to the summit of the mountain, an interesting new area for us, no-one else around, a great approach and a traverse of the mountain with an unclimbed descent route in prospect. And all possible whilst still leaving enough time out from our full time jobs of health and safety adviser (Paul) and taxman (me) for family holidays.
The next day was our sixth out from base camp. A few inches of snow fell in the night and it was gradually dawning on me that a descent down our line of approach up the east face would be unpleasant to the extent that, whatever lay ahead, it was better to persevere than descend. More thinly iced slabs followed by wonderful ice grooves and intimidating steep mixed pitches finally led to a snow band beneath the last overhanging wall which guarded access to the summit. From what we had seen through Paul’s binoculars the band led rightwards round the crest to steep snow and a way of avoiding the final wall. Snow was falling as I headed off rightwards round onto the northwest side. But luck was against us. A gap in the ramp presented a challenge that would obviously require aid and be time consuming. I retreated forlornly to an increasingly cold Paul. There was no way we were going to get up that evening and we had to admit that an ice choked chimney splitting the headwall was looking a more promising option for the morning.
Shiva from the east. (Andrey Muryshev)
Descending southeast flank on Day 8. (Mick Fowler)
Squeezed under the final wall was the one ledge on the entire Prow where we could half pitch the tent. Much of the floor overhung space but getting the poles in makes such a difference. Shielded from the heavy overnight snowfall we enjoyed a comfortable night and were ready to tackle the chimney first thing in the morning on day seven. It gave a fitting finale and from a cozy niche belay at the top I soaked up the weak rays of the morning sun and the glorious view as Paul led off out of sight up towards a short ridge leading to the cornice. It fell to me to break through and enjoy the curious sensation of being able to walk around on a flat area. Paul came up and a summit hug was in order.
A descent of the unclimbed southeast flank ended nine wonderful days in the mountains. It had been a fantastic trip and we had completed a climb that we already knew would soak us in retrospective pleasure for many years to come.
First ascent of Shiva (6142) by the northwest pillar (Prow) achieved by a two-man British team in Alpine style, in a nine day round trip. The summit was reached on 11 October 2012.
First Ascent of Cha Ri (6046 m)
The aim of the expedition was to explore that part of the Himalaya that had received no recorded visits from mountaineers, and if possible to climb an unclimbed peak, P. 6030 m. As this was the first exploratory expedition I had organised to the Himalaya, I sought an objective that, while still exploratory, would minimise our logistical complexity, have the easiest access to medical help should we have a problem, and give the highest chance of success. P.6030 m met these criteria. First of all, it was already listed as an open peak, thus removing any complications around getting permission to climb. The walk from the road to the foot of the mountain appeared to be relatively short, perhaps 12 to 14 km. It started from the village of Gya which has a clinic and a satellite-based STD phone.
Gya itself is just over two hour’s drive from Leh with its hospital and airport. These factors all made for simple logistics and for relatively easy access to medical help.
Finally, examination of the area using Google Earth suggested the possibility of routes to the mountain and on the mountain that avoided glaciers and which were not extremely steep, thus maximising our chances of success.
In addition I had visited the area in 2011, and had spent a week in Gya High School, just a few km up the road from the start point in Gya village, and so the team had better and more recent knowledge of this area than of any other part of the Himalaya.
Route to advanced base camp
We set up a base camp at Salsal campsite. This is on the main Leh to Manali road, approximately two km north (i.e. downhill towards Leh) of Gya. We camped here for two nights to aid acclimatisation. We used this time to locate the clinic and the satellite-based STD phone within the village.
We followed the Yabat river all the way to advanced base camp. From Gya to Camp 3 the easiest ground was on the south side of the river. Beyond Camp 3, the river disappears under a boulder field. There is a path through this boulder field marked by small cairns, presumably set in place and maintained by yak herders.
Camps 1 and 2 were south of the river. Camp 3 and advanced base camp were north of the river, in or beside livestock pens that had been constructed from dry stone walls.
Exploring routes to the summit
There were four routes to the summit accessible from ABC: the northeast face, the north ridge, the southeast ridge and the south face.
From ABC, the northeast face and the north ridge looked unstable, with a high risk of pinnacles and other loose rocks breaking from the ridge and falling down the face. We therefore rejected these two route options. We decided to climb the moraine at the foot of the glacier that came between P. 6030 m and P. 6120 m to the south and examine the other two routes more closely.
Finding a safe route up the moraine was difficult. From ABC we selected two routes to try: the northern and the southern fringe of the moraine, where the glacier debouched from between the south face of P. 6030 m and the north face of P. 6120 m. The northern fringe was unstable and topped by some steep piles of loose rock which caused us some concern. Our descent route down the southern edge of the moraine was even worse. This route followed the stream which escaped from the top of the glacier. There was near constant rock fall from the north bank of this stream, though we managed to find a route away from the fall line of these rocks. Nevertheless the descent was fraught, over steeply piled and loose boulders. However this reconnaissance trip was successful in that we saw that the southeast ridge was also unstable, but that the south face had a subsidiary ridge that looked like it might provide a safe route to the top. More, the summit itself was snow-free, and there appeared to be a snow-free route to the top. This opened up the possibility of a summit attempt without the weight of ice axes and crampons.
Cha Ri (right most), Kang Yabat II left of the saddle and Kang Yabat III to the right. (Caroline McCann)
Sketch map. (Douglas Briton)
Another benefit of our reconnaissance was that we spotted what looked like a safer and easier way up the moraine, following a slight ramp to a slight notch on the moraine's top.
The next day we rested and made plans It was clear that at this time Matt and Caroline were stronger than myself, and the best chance of a team summit was for Matt and Caroline to climb as a pair. I therefore decided not to attempt the summit.
Possible routes to summit
The south face: This looked to be a good option, either to the left of the hanging snow field and across the ridge, or using winter gear to climb the snowfield itself. At close quarters though, the snow was wet, loose and constantly sloughing. Climbing it or crossing it would have been difficult and very dangerous.
The southeast ridge: This was our preferred route during planning. On closer inspection it was found to be made up solely of loose rock. There was recent evidence of rock falls so this route was also discounted on safety grounds.
The north ridge: Long and steep, very technical and exposed. This route was discounted on first sight, during the recce. It would be fantastic for future exploration but will need plenty of time and full technical climbing gear.
To maximise Caroline's and Matt's chance of success, Wangckuk, Dorjay, our liaison officer Munesh and I carried Matt and Caroline's bags to the top of the moraine, along with spare water and food for them to cache for their descent. Caroline and Matt also carried a small stove so they could melt snow on the mountain.
Getting from the moraine to the south face proved more difficult than thought: Caroline and Matt found themselves on the wrong side of a previously unseen glacial lake. It was severely undercut, eroding constantly and required quite a detour. This delayed them by over an hour. On viewing the face from close quarters the climbers saw that the ridge might be treated as a scramble. They stashed their rock climbing equipment (rope, harnesses, protection) above the glacier and took only their helmets, plus the clothes and safety equipment appropriate for such an ascent.
The lower flanks of the mountain were quite loose scree and rock, but the upper reaches were solid red granite which Caroline and Matt enjoyed climbing. The summit pyramid however, was very steep and loose. The final eight m were too steep and unstable to bear the weight of the team, so the climbers stopped at the highest point they deemed safe.
Kang Yabat I from the north. (Douglas Briton)
The descent was helped by a long scree run from the summit. Meanwhile those of us in ABC were concerned for their safety as storms swept the valley, including a hail storm powerful enough to break up the soil. Fortunately the mountain remained in a small weather window: Matt and Caroline watched storms hit other peaks and valleys but the bad weather avoided them.
The ascent took 13 hours in all.
The next day, the climbers’ decision not to ascend the final pile of rocks was validated when Munesh, the Liaison Officer saw a significant rockfall from the summit cone.
The whole range of Kang Yabat and its eight peaks fan the head of the valley.
The glaciers, all feed the Yabat River which flows down to Leh and eventually joins the Indus.
Note on the nomenclature
Our Ladakhi contacts explained that in Ladakh it is the glaciers that are more important than the mountains, because it is the glaciers that supply the water that enables crops to be grown in the summer. What to western eyes may appear to be a range of distinct peaks and glaciers is often given a collective name because it all feeds the one river. Examples include Mentok Kangri I and II, Saser Kangri I, II East, II West, III and IV etc.
We chose to follow this example and name the range of peaks that feed the Yabat river the Kang Yabat range. Our understanding is that ‘kang’ is a Ladakhi word meaning ice or ice field or glacier.
Discussions with another Ladakhi speaker suggests that the Yabat river gets its name from ‘yababs’ which is Ladakhi for flowing from ice or flowing from a field of ice or flowing from a glacier, which would match our observation.
We decided to name the actual peak Cha Ri.
‘Ri’ means mountain in Ladakhi. ‘Cha’ can mean a large flying bird, and each day we saw a large bird, probably a Lammergeier, fly round the peak. But ‘cha’ also means tea and we drank a large amount of tea in the course of our expedition.
Note on glacial lake
We discovered a lake on the glacier running along the south flank of Cha Ri. There was very active erosion from the sides of this lake with the sidewalls being significantly undercut.
Given that the surface runoff from the glacier formed a short tunnel before pouring down the corner between the moraine and the north ridge of P.6120 m, there is a possibility that water from this lake could form a tunnel to suddenly breach the moraine, causing a sudden pulse of water to flow down the Yabat river.
In Gya village, many houses have been built very close to the Yabat river. A sudden release of water from this glacier lake may therefore pose a threat to life and property.
Members: Douglas Briton, Caroline McCann and Matt Jones
A small British team completed the first ascent of P. 6046 m (proposed name - Cha Ri) near Gya in Ladakh Himalaya in August-September 2013.
Kyoto University Alpine Club Zanskar Expedition
Planning of our Zanskar expedition
The Kyoto University Alpine Club was interested in the southern Zanskar region of the Indian Himalaya, ever since we read the exploration article of Reru valley written by Kimikazu Sakamoto who was a senior member of the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto. We requested a report of his exploration to Lenak and Giabul nala of Zanskar in which his team was planning to find the hidden virgin peaks of the region in the summer of 2011.
We decided to climb the virgin P. 6070 m (L15)1 in the left branch of Lenak nala in the summer of 2012. Our second target was P. 6080 m (L13) in the same area. Our team consisted of four members, Hiroaki Ogihara (Senior) leader, Yusuke Morimoto (Senior) deputy leader, Yuki Sawada (Sophomore) and Karin Kosaka (Sophomore). Tsewang Yangphel, worked as our guide and he arranged five staff members. Our expedition team had eleven persons including a liaison officer.
Access to base camp in Lenak nala
We flew from Delhi to Leh, with a population of about 50,000 at an altitude of 3500 m. From Leh, we travelled by car for three days to reach Padum, which was the centre of Zanskar. We drove to the roadhead, Dorzong.
03 September: Dorzong to Tsetan
04 September: Tsetan to Testa
05 September: Testa to Shanka. Shanka is the small village with only three houses and is the junction of two valleys, Lenak nala and Giabul nala.
06 September: Rest at Shanka.
07 September: Shanka to camping ground in Lenak nala. We could see the attractive P. 6070 m (L15).
BC and P. 6070 m. (L15)
08 September: Rest at camping ground in Lenak nala. We met a JAC team descending after their first ascent of P. 6165 m (L10) on the right branch of Lenak nala and exchanged information
09 September: Though it seemed to rain at any time, we departed and set up our BC at around 4800 m on the left branch of Lenak nala. Ogihara and Morimoto went to reconnaissance the route and reached about 5050 m at the foot of P. 6070 m (L15) climbing a steep slope.
10 September: Rest at Lenak nala BC. P. 6070 m (L15) seemed rather difficult and dangerous with steep scree and snow avalanches. We decided to attempt our second target P. 6080 m (L13) instead of P. 6070 m (L15). We obtained permission from our liaison officer.
11 September: Four members, the liaison officer, Tsewang and four staff members moved up from BC to establish our climbing route on P. 6080 m (L13). Soon after leaving BC, we climbed up the moraine of Lenak nala glacier. From 5000 m, we entered the north valley to P. 6080 m (L13) and set up C1 on the right side of the glacier. After taking a break, Ogihara and Morimoto scouted for C2.
By climbing to the tip of the glacier, we got a full view of this peak and the connecting glacier. The glacier was not covered with snow, and there was no danger at all of hidden crevasses. After about 40 minutes climbing, we reached the expected camp site for C2.
We climbed up to about 5500 m and deposited our climbing equipment in the shade of some rocks. P. 6080 m (L13) had less snow than we had expected.
12 September: Rest at BC. The route was clear since there was little snow accumulated on P. 6080 m (L13) glacier. All of us were in good health so we decided to set up C2 next day and then prepare right away to attempt the peak.
13 September: Four members departed from BC. At C2, we placed some slate stones on the glacier surface and pitched our tent over the stones. Sawada suffered from headache and dizziness. So, we decided to go down to C1. It started to get foggy when we reached C1 and it snowed again. In the middle of the night, Kosaka vomited several times. It was clear that she was suffering from high altitude sickness.
Climbing route of P. 6080 m.
Revised outline of Lenak nala ver 2.0
14 September: We decided to let Sawada and Kosaka descend to BC, though they seemed to be getting better and were disappointed to go down. The weather cleared up soon. Ogihara and Morimoto started to climb to the summit and made an easy ascent to C2 and prepared to ascend the peak under a clear blue sky.
15 September: We overslept a little. Even though the wind was strong in the evening and there were many clouds during the night, Ogihara and Morimoto decided to go for the summit. Morimoto led on the scree slope, avoiding crevasses. It was silent, as the water stream coming from the melted snow was frozen. As the scree slope was rather gentle, we were able to go up quickly. At around 5.30 a.m., the sun began to rise. At 6.00 a.m., we reached the tip of the snow ridge. While the snow was hard, the slope was only about 30 degrees. We zigzagged up the slope and reached the col at 6.45 a.m. Viewed from the col, the ridge to the East Peak was wide open. We walked up along the ridge for about 15 minutes and then Morimoto was the first to stand on the virgin peak of P. 6080 m (L13). The slate scree slope was exposed on the East Peak itself. We relaxed, making a cairn and taking photos.
Looking at the west peak of P. 6080 m.
From the East Peak, we could see the ridge from the col to the West Peak. It looked more difficult than expected. As we could see two crevasses running parallel to the ridge, we proceeded using our rope on three pitches. As the snow was hard, we had difficulty in setting up an anchor. The West Peak of P. 6080 m (L13) was a bare rock peak, where we found something like a cairn. There was no other artificial mark. When we discovered the cairn, we were more surprised rather than disappointed.
We went down to the col without using a rope and returned to C2 without crampons. After returning to C2, we decided to stay overnight there instead of going down to C1 on the same day, since we were tired.
16 September: We dismantled C2 and headed down to C1. It started snowing after we reached BC. Truly, we were lucky to be able to reach the summit the day before.
17 September: Rest at BC. We decided to try our original target, P. 6070 m (L15) after resting at BC. Though it snowed all day, there was not much accumulation of snow. In the afternoon, we saw some breaks in the clouds.
18 September: Mr. Tsewang woke us at 4.00 a.m. We saw everything was covered with snow.
He told us that it had started to snow in the middle of the night and the much snow had accumulated. It was our big regret that we had to give up our original target P. 6070 m (L15). But we made our decision to abandon our plan, because the danger of avalanches and the risk of hidden crevasses were too high. Also, Mr Tsewang warned that we might be confined as our horses would not be able to walk down in the heavy snow if it kept snowing.
Fortunately we could go down safely to Shanka village, where we stayed two nights.
When we visited IMF in Delhi, we paid the additional climbing fee for P. 6080 m (L13) and reported that we saw the cairn on the top of P. 6080 m (L13). We were informed that our’s would be recognised as a first ascent if we submitted our official expedition report to them after returning to Japan, because there was no previous climbing record of this peak2. We named P. 6080 m (L13) as ‘Our Mountain’, which translates into ‘Nga Tsoey Kangri’ in the Ladakhi language.
After returning to Japan, we received an e-mail from IMF stating that ‘Nga Tsoey Kangri’ has been accepted as the official name for P. 6080 m (L13).
First ascent of P. 6080 m in the Lenak nala of southern Zanskar on 15 September 2012. The Kyoto University team named the mountain as ‘Nga Tsoey Kangri’ meaning ‘our mountain’.
Derek R. Buckle
Inspired by Harish Kapadia’s article Zanskar Anyone?1, we decided to look more closely at possible climbing objectives that could be achieved from the relatively accessible Pensi la. It was immediately clear in contrast to the dominant Durung Drung glacier, the neighbouring Pensilungpa was relatively unexplored; particularly with respect to the subsidiary glaciers descending from the Pensilungpa - Durung Drung divide. Armed with photographs kindly provided by Harish we chose to look more closely at those unclimbed peaks that could be approached via these side glaciers. Five such glaciers descend from the divide, but as a result of marked glacial recession none now flow continuously into the Pensilungpa but are separated from it by substantial terminal moraine debris. Indeed, remote sensing suggests that as much as 38% of the Pensilungpa glacier area has disappeared over the period from 1962-20072 and that the glacial snout has receded some 120 m over the same period3. Evidence of previous surveys to map the position of the main glacier snout in 2007, 2008 and 2009 were noted and the current position of the snout was recorded as N33°50.873´ E076°18.907´ at 4640 m, indicating an average annual retreat over the period 2008-13 of approximately 11 m. As the source of the Suru river, the Pensilungpa glacier is an important tributary of the Indus, which it joins to the north of the town of Kargil.
Only Z8, which dominates the north eastern entrance to the Pensilungpa, is well documented. It was first climbed by the Italian husband and wife team of Gino and Silvia Buscaini via the west-northwest ridge in July 1978 and has been accorded a height of 6050 m.4 Our own estimates, based on sightings from neighbouring peaks, suggest that the true height may be rather lower. We have found no accounts of attempts on othr peaks to the southeast of the Pensilungpa glacier.
North face of Z8 from glacier 1. (Derek Buckle)
After flying from Delhi to Leh, a two-day drive took us via Kargil to Ringdom and thence to the roadhead a little north of the Pensi la. From here a three kilometre trek took us to a base camp at 4630 m, just half a kilometre short of the current glacial snout. From this camp it was possible to access the glacier proper, and its tributary glaciers to the southeast, by way of the complex true right lateral moraine.
Pensilungpa glacier. (Derek Buckle)
Exploration of the Pensilungpa and its south-eastern glaciers
Once established at BC our priority was to explore the topography of the valley; especially that bordering the third tributary glacier from which we hoped to access our first climbing objective. Two of us therefore ascended the well-defined medial moraine starting immediately above the glacier snout and ascended this until its coalescence with the relatively rubble free glacier at approximately 4900 m. From here we sighted possible objectives from the second and fourth tributary glaciers, but our primary target at the head of the third glacier obstinately remained hidden by a prominent pyramidal peak (tentatively named Pyramid Peak). Indeed, it was not until we subsequently climbed high on this glacier system that we sighted the peak and it was rarely visible from all other vantage points that we visited. For this reason we eventually proposed to call it Hidden Peak. Possibly more importantly, from the lateral moraine we were able to determine likely positions for higher camps and their potential access routes. Meanwhile the second pair followed the true right lateral moraine, traversing beneath tributary glaciers two and three to establish a viable route of access in addition to the identification of possible future camp sites.
Pyramid Peak. (Derek Buckle)
As a result of this reconnaissance, and with the assistance of four willing Sherpas, we were able to establish Camp 1 at 4845 m on 11 September and Camp 2 at 5223 m the following day. In continuing brilliant weather Mike, Tony and I set out early on the morning of 13 September to attempt Hidden Peak while Chris, who was not fully acclimatised, remained at Camp 2. Climbing unroped until the gradient increased significantly (to 30º) we were then forced to zig-zag through a maze of crevasses, firstly on the true right and then more towards the centre until the slope began to ease off. At this point the north face of Hidden Peak came into view just as the sun rose high enough to greet us. All earlier doubts about whether we had approached via the wrong glacier were immediately dispelled as we headed for an obvious col between Pyramid and Hidden Peaks. From this rocky col a short, steep snow climb up the north-northwest ridge led to a narrow snow arête, which in turn led to a prominent rock outcrop some 15 m higher. Easy climbing gave way to a compact 5802 m summit which we reached around three and half hours after leaving Camp 2 to make what we believe to be the first ascent (Alpine PD+). This vantage point afforded excellent views of the broken south ridge of Pyramid Peak and of the major peaks bordering the Durung Drung glacier, but incoming clouds now concealed the distant views of Nun and Kun to the north. Following our upward tracks we returned to Camp 2 prior to continuing to BC the following day.
Pensilungpa route and camps.
North face of P. 5641 m. (Derek Buckle)
After spending a day at BC we established Camp 3 at 4950 m on the true left lateral moraine of the fourth tributary glacier on 16 September in the hope of climbing the dominant 5641 m peak visible from BC.
Route to Twin peak from glacier 2. (Derek Buckle)
Pinnacle on Twin Peak, Hidden peak just visible at half height behind. (Derek Buckle)
This camp was rather lower than we had hoped, but the complex terrain yielded few level sites that were both objectively safe yet had access to clean water. Early the next day all four of us climbed the true left lateral moraine until it was possible to move right onto the rocky north-northeast ridge of P. 5641 m. Easy broken ground then led us to the broad glaciated north face, but being hard ice we soon abandoned this in favour of a return to the rocks. Higher up the difficulties increased as the ridge narrowed and we were again forced onto the ice of the north face until blocked by a prominent rock finger projecting into the face at around 5576 m. At this point we debated the pros and cons of continuing but the way forward was clearly more complex and further than anticipated. The face itself was exposed and reared to over 60° while a return to the rocky ridge looked more technical than we were prepared for. A decision was made to retreat, returning the way we had come. It was a disappointment, but with a higher starting point the outcome may well have been different. The next day we again returned to BC to recuperate.
On 20 September we again left BC to establish Camp 4 at 5186 m close to the true right lateral moraine of tributary glacier 2, although Chris decided to retreat to BC on reaching the site of our earlier Camp 1. Intriguingly, Camp 4 was characterised by numerous small penitents and ice pedestals up to 2 m high capped by large slabby blocks - it was a magical location, commanding extensive views of the upper glacier. As the weather continued to hold good the remaining three of us departed soon after sunrise the next day to follow the corrugated glacier slightly left of its centre to the point where it visibly steepened at the glacial wall. Here we exchanged poles for axes and crampons before continuing as a rope of three. As the slope increased from around 25-30° to nearer 40° we trended leftwards to cross several large crevasses rather than expose ourselves to impending seracs before continuing south to a broad col at around 5600 m. Here we veered towards the west along a steep, snowy arête bordered on the left by a line of rocks overlooking the Durung Drung glacier. The arête terminated in two close rocky summits, the second of which constituted an impressively sharp needle rising from a small airy col. We chose to stop at the first, slightly lower summit (5825 m) which we reached in five hours (Alpine AD). Having made the first ascent of the east summit of this peak we appropriately chose to call it Twin Peak. The summit provided panoramic views of the Durung Drung glacier with its surrounding peaks dominated by Z3, long-distance views towards Nun and Kun and, more locally, of the rocky south-west ridge/face of Z8. With few alternative options available we retraced our ascent route back to Camp 4. The next day we rejoined Chris at BC.
Doda peak (6485 m) and Durung Drung glacier from Twin peak. (Derek Buckle)
It snowed during the night of 22 September and the sky remained heavily overcast most of the following day. With clear weather on the 24, however, Mike and I climbed to 5118 m on the north ridge of Z8 in the company of our Liaison Officer, Suman Kant (‘Happy’), in order to photograph its impressive north face and to observe more closely the first tributary glacier now that we had explored the second, third and fourth. Our route presumably followed a line similar to that of the first ascentionists, but we saw no evidence of their passing.
With our time in Zanskar now at an end we left the Pensilungpa the following day to return first to Ringdom Gompa and from there via Kargil to Leh, Delhi and home.
Derek Buckle (leader), Mike Pinney, Chris Storie and Tony Westcott.
In September – October 2013 four members of the Alpine Club visited the Pensilungpa glacier in the Zanskar region of the Indian Himalaya. In addition to general exploration of the area, they successfully made the first ascents of two summits on the Pensilungpa - Durung Drung divide; P. 5802 m (PD+, tentatively called Hidden Peak) and P. 5825 m (AD, tentatively called Twin Peak).