As I stepped off the icy ledge and started my rappel down the steep north face of the Sakang col, I felt a surge of apprehension. This was a committing move. We were descending 500 m into the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier.
When I first sent details of our expedition to Victor Saunders I wrote ‘The major concern on this route is, in the event of a mishap or ill health, getting back via the Sakang col would be a challenge and we would have to consider helicopter evacuation.’ Unfortunately, this was to come true.
The lure of an unclimbed 7000’r is strong, and when you see an opportunity to attempt two, it becomes the next objective!
I had attempted Plateau Peak (7300 m) in 2009. Unfortunately, we were sent packing by the weather after reaching 6600 m and the route was exacting. The peak remained an enigma. It had been attempted by several expeditions from its western approach without any success. The route-finding itself was a challenge. It had now become one of the most sought after climbs.
Sitting unnoticed in the middle of the giant 7000’rs of the Saser group was P. 7017 m. The IMF website listed it as Tughmo Zarpo.
I toyed with the idea of attempting P. 7017 m and Plateau Peak from the eastern approach i.e. from the North Shupka Kunchang glacier. I read the articles in the Himalayan Journals on the two previous expeditions that had entered the valley. The North Shukpa Kunchang glacier can be approached from the Shyok valley in the east but gets blocked off during the summer months. Also, to reach the base of P. 7017 m, one would have to negotiate 32 km of the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier.
Looking for an alternative approach, it occurred to me that one could descend to the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier from the Sakang col, which I had visited during the 2009 expedition to Plateau Peak. The descent from the Sakang col would be steep and committing. But compared to the difficulty of the eastern approach, it seemed a better option.
The team consisted of Victor Saunders, Susan Jensen, Vineeta Muni, Andy Parkin and I. There was a support team of six Sherpas - Samgyal, Mingma, Ang Dorji, Chedar, Dawa and Karma, three kitchen staff - Chetup, Sonam, Kami and a runner, Ramesh. A liaison officer was deputed to accompany the team. The logistics support was provided by Rimo Expeditions.
We landed in Leh on 18 July 2013 and spent four days checking our gear, discussing plans and acclimatising. Due to the difficult terrain of the approach march, getting our loads to base camp itself was a challenge. With a night halt at Phonglas (4400 m), we were at base camp on 25 August.
We had to either find a route from the head of the Sakang glacier or make an attempt from the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier.
We rested a day at base camp settling down and unpacking the gear. We established advanced base camp at 4800 m on the central moraine of the Sakang glacier. It was a long and torturous route. Initially the route started from the lateral moraine on the true left of the glacier. We then crossed onto the central moraine to avoid crossing the subsidiary glaciers feeding into the Sakang Lungpa. A team of Kumauni porters and the Sherpas supported our movement to ABC.
On 30 July, we spent the day to do the recce of the head of the Sakang glacier. We decided to explore two options. One, to seek a route from the south face of the wall connecting Plateau Peak and Sakang Peak and the other to cross the Sakang col into the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier.
On the next day, most of the team, along with the Sherpas climbed to the Sakang col (6150 m) for an initial assessment of the route. The first sight of the descent left us speechless. ‘You have a look!’ was all Victor said to me. I sat silently at the col for a long time before I looked around. The Sherpas also had a grave look. This was difficult and dangerous! As I descended, I instructed the Sherpas to bring down the rope and gear that they had carried up. This was not going to work. The route looked too loose.
At ABC, we thought of alternatives and decided to have a second look at the Sakang col. On 3 August, Victor and I climbed Sakang col again. We considered a line of descent that might work. However, as we walked back to ABC, both of us had nagging doubts about the route. In the meantime, Andy and Susan explored the basin route. They were of the opinion that the route may be climbable in a quick alpine style attempt.
On 5 August, we moved to the camp below the Sakang col. The route to the camp was crevasse ridden. By mid-morning, the snow turned soft. There was uncertainty with each step… would it hold or would it collapse? One would be thigh deep in snow and sometimes find oneself dangling over a crevasse. Each one of us had to be pulled out of a crevasse at sometime or the other.
We had another look at the descent route from Sakang col. Victor, Samgyal and I traversed down some distance to the point where the route takes a vertical descent all the way to the glacier. It was a frightful experience. The route was exposed to rock fall and one could see a lot of debris strewn all along. As we stood there, we heard a couple of rocks wiz past. Without much discussion we made our decision, we would not risk descending this route. At the col, we looked further east towards Sakang Peak. About 200 m further east from where we stood, a steep ice slope fell all the way to the glacier below. There was no sign of rock fall on the slopes below. If we could find an approach to the slope, we might have a safe route down.
On the following day, Victor and I along with two Sherpas climbed up to and adjacent notch on the Sakang col ridge. For easier reference we called it ‘Andy’s col’. Susan and Andy attempted reaching a further notch directly above the proposed descent route. This we referred to as Susan’s gully.
The climb to Andy’s col was fairly straightforward. As we topped out at the col, our spirits were lifted at the sight below. YES! It looked safe and doable. A steep icy slope directly leading down from this point appeared to snake all the way down to the glacier. We walked back to camp that day very happy. Susan and Andy returned from their recce without success. So there seemed only one safe route across.
North Shukpa Kunchang glacier seen from Camp 1. (Divyesh Muni)
The next two days were spent reorganising while the Sherpas shifted loads from our initial descent route to ‘Andy’s’ point. They also fixed about 300 m of rope on the descent and lowered most of our gear and rations half way to the glacier on the other side. Victor, Andy and Susan rested for a day at ABC before we were ready to cross over to the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier.
On 10 August, we started off with heavy loads to cross the Sakang col. Victor, Andy and Susan had carried four days of rations for themselves. Vineeta, the Sherpas and I were prepared with 12 days of provisions. We were 11 of us on the route. By the time I started down from the col, it was 11.00 a.m.
The slope immediately below was vertical for about 50 m and gradually eased to about 60 degrees. It was a step into the unknown, knowing that we could not afford to err. We were descending into the valley between two giants, Saser Kangri II and Saser Kangri III. I was quickly down the first 100 m.
As I changed anchors and prepared to move down the next rope length, Vineeta was about 50 m above me and Mingtemba Sherpa was further above. I heard the sound of an explosion. Instantly as I looked up, I saw a shower of rocks above us - I shouted but there was nothing we could do. We were restricted in our movement by the fixed rope. We dug our heads into the ice and hoped our helmets would save us. To my relief all three of us escaped unhurt. We started moving down as fast as possible. The melting ice had triggered a rock fall from the edge of the Sakang col. A massive boulder that had dislodged landed on the slope above us and splintered causing the explosion sound.
Most of the team was waiting on a rock ridge half way down the face. The route further down was on the rock band and it required careful traversing and descent. We could not afford to dislodge any rocks, since they would endanger the climbers moving below. After the rock band, we had to negotiate a snow and ice slope to reach the glacier. The Sherpas had devised a 200 m zip line to the bottom for the loads to be lowered. It took a few hours for us to gingerly climb down the slope and for all the loads to be lowered. By 4.00 p.m. we started moving down the glacier. We had to exit the narrow valley and camp in a location safe from any avalanches that may come from the Saser Kangri peaks flanking the valley.
Victor, Susan and Andy had moved ahead and scouted a safe route down the glacier to its junction with the North Shupka Kunchang glacier. By the time the rest of us reached the junction, it was nearly dark. We quickly setup camp and settled for the night. All of us were exhausted, both physically and mentally. Next morning, we had a relaxed start. The views were simply astounding. The North Shukpa Kunchang glacie, snaked down till the eye could see, flanked on both sides by high peaks. There was happiness, excitement and enthusiasm as we packed and made our way to the central glacial moraine of the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier near the southern end of P. 7017 m. It took us almost four hours to find a route across the glacier and locate a good camp site, but it was worth the effort. We called it the Chamshen camp, based on the name of P. 7017 m that we were to attempt. As we made our way across the glacier, we looked up in awe at the huge face of Saser Kangri III looming behind us. We wanted to get as far away from it as possible considering the massive hanging seracs and broken ice threatening to fall any moment.
It was now clear that P. 7017 m was not Thugmo Zarpo, which was actually an adjoining peak of lesser height. That evening, we had grand views of Saser Kangri II, Saser Kangri III, P. 7017 m, Thugmo Zarpo and scores of peaks on the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier.
On the next day, 12 August, Samgyal, Ang Dorjee and I went further up the glacier to recce a route for P. 7017 m from the north whilst Victor, Andy and Susan went east, to scout a route for an alpine attempt. Both routes looked feasible. Victor, Andy and Susan would go back across the Sakang col to replenish supplies, Vineeta and I supported by the Sherpas would attempt P. 7017 m from the north ridge.
Accordingly, we shifted to Camp 1 at 6000 m whilst Victor, Andy and Susan took a day off at the Chamshen camp. The route to Camp 1 was on the moraine for the initial section and then went onto the broken glacier. The route zig-zagged through crevasses all the way to the campsite.
As we climbed up, we could get a better view of the route towards Plateau Peak. It would be a challenge to find a safe route from Chamshen camp to the base of Plateau Peak. I spotted a possible line but we would think of that after our attempt on Chamshen.
As we settled into Camp 1, the weather packed up and it was snowing heavily by mid-afternoon. The snowfall continued through the night and the morning of 14 August did not show any signs of improvement. We decided to move back to Chamshen camp and wait out the weather. The walk back was cold and windy. With low visibility, we had to be careful whilst finding our way back through the maze of crevasses. When we got back to the camp, our British friends were preparing to leave to cross the Sakang col.
I was not happy to see them attempt the crossing in this weather. The snow accumulation, low visibility and the risk of the terrain itself were reason enough not to proceed. But they were determined and hoped that they would get across before the weather further deteriorated. They left camp and planned to spend a night at the intermediate campsite we had used on 10 August.
The snowfall continued persistently and made me very tense about our three friends somewhere on the glacier. On 15 August, Indian Independence Day was celebrated at the camp. It was snowing and we stayed put. It was late evening when I heard a voice calling out to me. It was Susan...she was in tears.
Andy Parkin being rescued after the accident. (Divyesh Muni)
On 14 August at about 10.00 p.m., the three of them had been blown over by the pre-avalanche blast of air whilst at the intermediary camp to Sakang col. The blast of the avalanche that came from Saser Kangri II was so intense that both tents were lifted off, ripping out the anchors. The tents, with their occupants inside, were thrown high, rolled over and scattered their contents as they landed. Victor and Susan had a miraculous escape. Victor injured his back, which nagged him for the rest of the expedition. Susan had some minor injuries. Andy unfortunately landed 20 m into a crevasse. Slammed against the sides of the crevasse, he had several impact injuries. He found it difficult to move.
Through the night, Victor and Susan hauled Andy out of the crevasse. They huddled into the surviving tent. Early morning brought down one more powerful blast. Although they survived this without further damage, they pumped Andy with steroids and he painfully moved two km to a safer spot on the glacier. Victor and Susan propped him in the tent and stocked some food and water with him before making their way to Chamshen camp to seek help.
The first priority now was to arrange for rescue. Our worst fears had come true. There was no possibility of Andy crossing the Sakang col on his own or even being carried across. There was no other exit point from our location. It was 32 km to the Shyok if we were to go down the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier and the river may have blocked the exit. The only way out for Andy was by air.
Saser Kangri I east face from Chamshen Camp. (Divyesh Muni)
Saser Kangri II north face from Chamshen Camp. (Divyesh Muni)
Summit camp at 6500 m. (Divyesh Muni)
If we were to send a Sherpa across the Sakang col and back to Nubra, it would take several days. Our liaison officer had left the team and was camped with the Ladakh Scouts way below our base camp. We had to send an emergency message to arrange for Andy to be air-lifted. The only way to do this was to use the satellite phone Victor had brought for such a contingency. Although the use of satellite phones was not allowed due to security concerns, it was the only way we could arrange for Andy’s rescue. We sent out the message.
In the next few hours, while we were settling Victor and Susan, Rajesh Gadgil and Rimo Expeditions had started supervising the rescue process. IMF and the insurance company were informed and a request had been sent to the Indian Air Force for air lifting Andy.
At first light on 16 August, Victor and I along with the Sherpas made our way to Andy. Within an hour and half, he was sipping hot tea and joking about his predicament - even the slightest movement was extremely painful. Victor and I broke trail through the soft snow while the six Sherpas carried Andy to Chamshen camp on a rope stretcher over soft snow with hidden crevasses. It took us several hours to get back to camp.
In the meantime, we had provided our exact location and the Air Force team charted the course for the helicopters to reach us. It had to be a long circuitous route along the Shyok and up the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier. Due to the low visibility, the choppers could not fly. The pilots were on standby, ready to fly as soon as the weather provided a window.
On 17 August, we waited eagerly for choppers to arrive. We had prepared a helipad by stamping down the fresh snow and placing markers and a flag to indicate the wind direction.
We had resigned to wait another day for the rescue. Just then, at about 5.00 p.m. the distant sound of rotors caught our attention and brought cheers all around. As we scrambled out of our tents, pulling on boots and jackets, the helicopters came to view flying just above the glacier keeping below the low clouds. Andy was literally hauled out of his tent and carried by Ang Dorjee on his back. The helicopters flew Andy off to the hospital in Leh after an overnight halt en route.
Andy was later diagnosed with a fracture of the sacral bone due to which he was in intense pain and could not move. Hats off to all those involved in the rescue, specially the pilots, whose skilfull flying in such difficult conditions got Andy out.
We breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that Andy was in safe hands. The weather also appeared to settle. With a few more days to spare, we had to decide our further course of action. We were now running short of rations. Victor and Susan were also in a dilemma, whether to cross the Sakang col or to join us for an attempt on Chamshen. They had no food supplies with them and would be dependent on us. We gladly agreed to share our rations should they choose to stay on and join us for the attempt on Chamshen.
Vineeta meticulously took stock of the rations and budgeted the same for the remaining days. We were now on survival rations. We waited a day for the weather to settle and shifted on 19 August to Camp 1 at 6000 m for the first and last shot at the summit. On 20 August we shifted to Camp 2 at 6500 m. The route varied from 400 to 500 and we had to negotiate a few large crevasses. 600 m of rope was fixed on this section. We had now run out of fixed rope. Not knowing the difficulties of the terrain to the summit, we retrieved the top 200 m of rope to carry with us for the summit attempt.
Climbers on the summit ridge of Chamshen. (Divyesh Muni)
We had to negotiate about 1500 m of the west ridge to gain 520 m of altitude. On 21 August, we started at the break of dawn and slowly made our way on the summit ridge. The route was fairly simple with a few sections of steep snow and one stretch of steep loose rock. We were fortunate to find easy passage past two rock gendarmes en route. By 11.00 a.m. the last of us reached the summit to enjoy a grand panorama of the East Karakoram peaks. We spent a long time celebrating, taking pictures and just soaking in the grand views around.
Back to Chamshen camp on 22 August, we spent the next day resting and preparing to cross the Sakang col. The narrow valley leading to the col was now referred to as ‘The Valley of Death’. We decided to cross in one shot, leaving the Chamshen base on the midnight of 23 August.
We made quick progress in the moonlit night. As we passed the accident site, Victor could retrieve some of the lost equipment. By early morning we were at the base of the col. The terrain had changed dramatically. The 500 m climb to the top of the col was one of the most frightening experiences due to the constant threat of rock fall, the steep ice and the enormous loads. The lower fixed ropes were completely swept off by avalanches. Huge avalanche debris at the base of the col looked ominous. We climbed as fast as we could to reduce our exposure. But the prolonged exposure over the last several days to altitude and the lack of nutrition was taking its toll. Our movement on the slope was very slow. The fixed rope on the rock band was damaged in several places. Crossing the last 200 m to the col on the near vertical ice with heavy loads was the most difficult climb of the expedition. Exhausted and dehydrated, most of us were hauled across the last overhanging section of ice by a team of Sherpas with an additional rope. We were more elated getting across the col, than we were on reaching the summit of Chamshen!
Summit ridge of Chamshen. (Divyesh Muni)
Over the next few days, we wound up all camps. At base camp, we were greeted with the news of successful ascents of Plateau Peak by members of The Himalayan Club Kolkata Section and the team of Ladakh Scouts by different routes. At the roadhead, however, we were greeted by the Police, who were inquiring about our use of the satellite phone. Victor was arrested and let off with a minor penalty and confiscation of the phone instrument. The Magistrate at the Leh court was considerate since we had used the phone only for an emergency. We hope that some system can be worked in the future where legitimate use of satellite phones is permitted by the Government of India and security agencies.
We had an immensely satisfying expedition. Andy was safe and recovering from his injuries. The team had achieved the first ascent of P. 7017 m, which we called Chamshen and we had made the first and probably the last crossing of the Sakang col.
On 21 August 2013, an Indian-British joint expedition achieved first ascent of P. 7017 m (named Chamshen) in the East Karakoram, after making the first crossing of the Sakang col (c. 6150 m) linking Sakang glacier and North Shukpa Kunchang glacier. On 14 August, Andy Parkin met with an accident due to an avalanche blast and was seriously injured. He was saved by helicopter pilots from the Indian Air Force, who were contacted through the illegal use of a satellite phone by the team.