Faith is taking the first step, even if you have not seen the whole staircase.
- Martin Luther King Jr
It snowed heavily through the night. I remained huddled with my wife Chetna, inside a small arctic tent at Camp 1 on the South Phukpoche glacier, deep in the eastern Karakoram. As I opened my tent’s flap and peered out, I was welcomed by the sight of a thick white blanket of snow covering the lateral moraines of the glacier. A heavily overcast sky, poor distant visibility, absence of wind and incessant snow fall always portends the appearance of a spell of poor climbing weather. A clime in which one can do little but to huddle up inside warm sleeping bags and wait for the sky to clear. Fortunately, we were exhausted and welcomed this opportunity to rest after the last three days of sustained climbing, including twenty one hours from Camp 3 to the top of the Plateau Peak and back.
The joy was slowly sinking in – the Kolkata section of the Himalayan Club had ascended the last unclimbed bastion of the Saser peaks via the sheer and broken west ridge of the Plateau Peak (7300 m).
The Saser mountains have five peaks above 7000 m. All these peaks offer significant technical mountaineering challenges on their steep ridges and faces. Saser Kangri I (7676 m), Saser Kangri II main (7518 m), Saser Kangri III (7495 m) and Saser Kangri IV (7410 m) had been ascended between 1976 and 2011. Though several attempts were made on Saser Kangri V or the Plateau Peak, both on the western approach from the South Phukpoche glacier as well as the eastern approach from the Sakang glacier, success eluded all previous attempts.
Camp 1 at South Phukpoche glacier and Plateau Peak. (Plateau Peak Expedition 2013)
We had had a close look at Plateau Peak during our ascent of Saser Kangri IV in 20111. The face of the mountain seemed to be guarded by dangerously balanced seracs from the summit plateau. The only feasible route appeared to be its western ridge, but the sheer rock wall of the western ridge seemed a serious bottleneck. After our successful ascent on Mamostong Kangri (7516 m) in 20102, Saser Kangri IV (7416 m) in 2011 and Jongsong East (7447 m) in 20123, our climbing team appeared confident in tackling the intricacies of the west ridge. A team of nine climbers under the leadership of Debraj Dutta set about planning the expedition. The veteran Phurba Sherpa, who has been a permanent member of our team since last four expeditions, led a seven member Sherpa team from Darjeeling with three kitchen staff. They joined us in New Delhi.
The entire team congregated at Leh on 4 July 2013 reaching the roadhead at Phukpoche on 6 July. This is a five hour drive from Leh across the Khardung la following Nubra river. 7 and 8 July were spent acclimatising, arranging locals to ferry our load to base camp and fixing ropes en route to the base camp for the safety of the climbers as well as the local people carrying our load along the deep gorges of Phukpoche nala. Getting adequate porters for large expeditions in the Nubra valley is a perennial problem, but our contacts at Phukpoche came handy, particularly Wangchuk, who also offered the extension of his house for our large team to stay.
The advance team led by Pasang and Migma left with the first batch of load ferrying porters on 09 July. Over the next five days, some ninety loads of twenty kg each were moved to the base camp at the confluence of the South Phukpoche and the North Phukpoche glaciers, at an altitude of c. 4700 m. By 14 July, the entire team was at BC. In the meanwhile, our advance team had already commenced dumping loads at our proposed Camp 1 site on the South Phukpoche glacier.
By 15 July, our Camp 1 had enough supplies and climbing gear. 16 July was a rest day and we performed our customary base camp Puja with Hindu and Buddhist rituals. On 17 July, an advance team consisting of Chetna, Pradeep, Phurba, Pasang, Migma, Dawa and our cook Indra occupied Camp 1 (c. 5400 m), while the others ferried loads. Camp 1 was in the middle of the South Phukpoche glacier, close to its true right bank on a fairly flat portion. This had served as Camp 1for our 2011 expedition to Saser Kangri IV.
The South Phukpoche glacier drains out from the accumulation zone of Saser IV, Saser I and the Plateau Peak. Two parallel ridges descend from Saser IV, The west ridge guards the north side, and the south west ridge of Plateau Peak guards the south side of South Phukpoche glacier. Saser IV, Saser I and Plateau Peak create the eastern boundary, giving a wonderful amphitheatre like view of peaks and ridges. However, they tend to block the clouds moving in from the west across the Nubra valley hence influencing local weather conditions. The west ridge of the Plateau Peak falls sharply from the summit plateau - this was clearly visible from our camp location. This approach was tried several times in the past by climbers from the Indian armed forces.
The BSF team in 2009 had successfully tackled the lower part of the west ridge up to a height of c .6400 m but was stopped by a rock tower. They also faced a sustained period of bad weather leading to their expedition being aborted. From our Camp 1 location, we did a thorough investigation of the route using our tele-lenses. Our team’s experience on the south ridge of Saser IV and on the south face of Jongsong, where we had handled highly technical and long stretches of rock climbing had given us experience and courage to handle this rock pinnacle. We also worked on a backup plan, which was to circumvent the rock
Climbing the rock band. (Plateau Peak Expedition 2013)
pinnacle. This climb would require a dangerous traverse on the highly exposed south face of the Plateau Peak that overlooked a sharp fall of around 600 m to the South Phukpoche glacier and was also exposed to constant threat from huge seracs hanging precariously from the summit plateau. A short traverse of about 200 m or so would however get us to the safety of the western ridge. The southwest ridge, as viewed from our base camp location had offered an alternate approach, but from our Camp 1 location, we observed that there was no access to the southwest ridge from the South Phukpoche glacier. During the course of the expedition we found a team from the Ladakh Scouts was attempting this route, but they had approached the mountain from the other side (Sakang glacier).4
On 18 July, our advance team led by Phurba opened the route to Camp 2 (c. 6000 m) on a fairly broad shoulder on the lower part of the west ridge. The route to Camp 2 from Camp 1, involves crossing the entire breadth of the South Phukpoche glacier diagonally from our Camp 1 location to the base of the ridge and then climbing about 200 m of a rocky slope of 40 to 50 degrees and then an ice slope of 30 to 40 degrees. The glacier traverse did not offer much difficulty as it was either moraine covered or compacted with hard ice without many crevasses. The shoulder at an approximate height of c. 6000 m had a snow field about the size of a football field - an excellent site for Camp 2. We camped close to the rock buttress.
On 19 while Phurba, Mingma, Mingma Thendup and Lakpa occupied Camp 2, Lakpa, Gyalzen, Dawa, Passang and I ferried load to C 2. The same day Debraj, Prashant, Subrato, Ganesh and Adrito occupied Camp 1. Biplab, Parag and Karma remained in base camp to coordinate the supply lines. We spend 20 July exploring the glacier around Camp 1, while the advance team with Phurba worked on the west ridge above Camp 2. The initial stretch above Camp 2 involves climbing the rock buttress which then turns into a sharp ridge of broken rock and ice. It was a tricky traverse that entailed walking very gingerly on the dodgy ridge and sometimes making a sideward traverse on the steep slopes that fell precipitously to the South Phukpoche glacier below. The entire route beyond the top of the buttress required to be secured with fixed lines. We saw two old dilapidated lines from the previous expeditions - an eight mm nylon rope and a 10 mm plastic rope. That day the advance team reached the bottom of the rock pinnacle, which was the high point reached by the BSF team in 2009. They located a possible camp site at the bottom of the rock pinnacle, which also seemed to be the camp site for the previous expedition. A total length of 1200 m rope (four coils of eight mm plastic rope) was fixed to secure the route.
Negotiating lower portion of the west ridge after Camp 2. (Plateau Peak Expedition 2013)
On 20 and 21 July, the advance team worked to explore the route across the rock pinnacle, while the others made a load ferry to Camp 2. The rock pinnacle was found to be too difficult to establish a feasible route upwards, so Phurba and his team, worked on our plan B - to find a route around the rock pinnacle. Starting 5.00 a.m. in the morning on 21 July, they moved quickly to the bottom of the rock pinnacle and then concentrated on circumventing the steep pinnacle. By late in the afternoon, they were successful in fixing two coils of rope (600 m), one on the traverse on the south face and the other on a slope of blue ice connecting to the bottom of the upper rock band. We were now successful in cracking a route across the rock pinnacle. This was a hazardous route and we planned to cross that portion in the night as that would minimise our exposure to rock fall and ice avalanche. The advance team of four climbers had been working continuously for last five days. On 21 evening they came down to Camp 1 for a well earned rest, while the rest of the team stocked up Camp 2 for the remaining days of the expedition.
Our big team together enjoyed a rest day on 22 July in Camp 1. We worked out the logistics for the remaining portion of the climb. The advance team would continue working on the remaining portion of the rock wall on the upper portion of the west ridge. The other teams would occupy Camp 2 a day later and then we would form the summit team that would occupy the summit camp / Camp 3 (c. 6400 m) below the bottom of the rock tower. Our leader Debraj, detailed out the plan to all members on 22 evening and we retired early keeping in mind the hard day ahead.
The morning was not the best as we woke to moderate snowfall. More worrying was the cloud condition both on the summit of the Saser massif and the dark clouds coming up from the Nubra valley through the Phukpoche nala. An early start was not possible as we wanted to gauge the mood of the weather and take a call as the morning progressed. To our dismay, the adverse weather showed no sign of relenting. By evening even though the snowfall had stopped, the overcast condition persisted. The full moon period had just passed by. The Sherpa members usually have a natural premonitory ability about the high altitude weather trends and they believe that if the weather turns foul around full moon, it will remain so for at least four / five days. We prayed for the weather to improve but 24 and 25 July also exhibited similar weather conditions. We were worried about the snow conditions in the higher realms of the mountain. On 25 July we sent three of our Sherpa members to base camp, braving bad weather, to bring up fresh supplies to Camp 1. The morning of 26 July saw another day of heavy snowfall. We were now into the fifth day of inactivity at camp and this made us feel very restless. That evening, the weather finally showed some improvement and later we saw the stars glittering and the dark clouds slowly moved away.
As per our earlier plan, the advance team consisting Phurba, Mingma, Thendup Lakpa, Dawa, Gyalzen, Chetna and myself occupied Camp 2 the next day in excellent weather. Camp 2 offered an unhindered view of western Karakoram mountains including the mighty Broad Peak and Gasherbrum. For the first time we saw the Ladakh Scout team on the lower portion of the southwest ridge through our telephoto lenses.
On 28 July, at 4.30 a.m., Phurba, Migma and Lakhpa commenced the opening of the remaining portion of the upper rock band in order to find a safe passage through the hanging seracs to the lower plateau of the summit. Later in the morning Thendup, Gyalzen and Dawa carried loads to C 3 at the base of the rock pinnacle.
Phurba’s team had a tough job retrieving the ropes buried under several inches of snow over the past five days. By 10.00 a.m. after toiling continuously for over six hours they reached their highest point on the lower rock band. By 2.00 p.m., Debraj, Subrato, Prasant, Ganesh and Adrito reached Camp 2. A little later the team that had gone to drop load at Camp 3 also returned to Camp 2. All the members were in excellent condition except Chetna, who had a nagging cough that had been troubling her from Camp 1. It was a very bright afternoon. All eyes were set on the trio making their way up the tricky upper rock band. By 5.00 p.m., we saw them between the top of the rock wall treading slowly on an ice slope that lay between the final rock tower and the seracs of the lower plateau. As they had only two and half hours of day light left to descend safely, we persuaded them over the walkie- talkie to come down as the most difficult part of the west ridge was behind them. But Phurba wanted to make sure that he had a view of the western plateau before they returned. By 6.00 p.m., we saw them on the top of the highest dome on the lower plateau seen from our camp. Then the trio slowly started descending on the fixed lines. It took them nearly four hours to reach Camp 2. But they had completed an excellent job on the wall which was the main hurdle on the west ridge.
The following morning, we were to occupy Camp 3 for our final summit attempt that night. The advance team was not in a good shape and the second team that had occupied C 2 also needed a day to acclimatise, before making the final push. Though the weather was good, we decided to take a rest day before occupying the summit camp. Chetna was still not fully recovered from her cough, which started worsening. She decided against going to the summit camp and planned to return to Camp 1. Today, we could not see the Ladakh Scout climbers who probably were taking a day off too!
Camp 3. (Plateau Peak Expedition 2013)
On 30 July, Debraj, Subrato, Prashant, Adrito, Ganesh and I and seven of our Sherpa members left Camp 2 leisurely at 8.00 a.m. as the climb to C 3 was just over four hours. The plan was to reach C 3 before one in the afternoon and after a good rest to resume the final climb at mid night.
The initial climb was through a large heap of loosely stacked boulders above Camp 2, where we moved without our crampons. The ridge subsequently turns into a knife edge, which required some tight rope walking on the knife edge and some horizontal traverses on the steep slopes. After gaining about 300 m of vertical height, we descended about 30 m on to a depression on the ridge which was rising sharply to the base of the rock pinnacle. The rocky outcrops on the ridge were good for fixing rock pitons. By one in the afternoon, all of us were at Camp 3, and we pitched three tents for the twelve of us. In the evening, the panorama of numerous peak of western Karakoram, glowing in the setting sun was breathtaking. The summit team consisted of Debraj, Subrata, Prashant and I along with Phurba, Migma, Thendup, Lakpa and Dawa. Gyalzen and Lakhpa Sr. stayed behind with Ganesh and Adrito as a support to the main team. I could hardly manage any sleep. At 11.00 p.m., Lakhpa Sr. brewed some tea which we had with corn flakes. By mid night, we set out for the traverse around the rock pinnacle. It involved navigating precariously through a few seracs and then crossing a bergshrund. We walked in the pool of light from our head lamps, oblivious of the lurking dangers from the seracs or the dangerously exposed south face of Plateau Peak. We climbed about 200 m of blue ice at a gradient of 50 to 60 degree, before we gained access to the rock wall again.
Near the western end of the summit plateau. (Plateau Peak Expedition 2013)
There was no wind; the sky was clear with the glittering stars and the half moon. We inched ahead on the fixed line mechanically. The lower portion was a mixed terrain of rock and ice, giving us enough purchase for our crampons. As we moved towards the upper section of the rock wall, it was a tricky maze of chimneys, narrow rock gullies covered with a thin layer of ice, making our climb extremely tricky. By day break we were in a 15 m high chimney, just wide enough to climb in a bridging position. After the chimney was a vertical wall of five m. Once we were above the rock wall, we got into a narrow slope of ice at 40 to 50 degrees and 10 m wide between the top of the rock wall and the hanging seracs of the west end of the plateau. This slope finally connects to another large serac by a narrow snow bridge. We cautiously made our way through to the top of the serac and then passed another large serac about the size of a five story building on our left as we climbed up to the western end of the summit plateau. By 9.30 a.m. the first five members reached this balcony, the others caught up in half an hour’s time.
Saser Kangri II seen from the summit. (Plateau Peak Expedition 2013)
Saser Kangri III seen from the summit. (Plateau Peak Expedition 2013)
After the excruciating climb of ten hours, we rested for 20 minutes and started our long traverse across the summit plateau. A vast rolling snowfield unfolded in front of us. It appeared as if we were on a polar landscape. After covering about half of the plateau, we could see Saser Kangri IV and Saser Kangri I summits emerging towards the northeastern direction. Saser Kangri II and Saser Kangri III were still out of sight. The snow condition was perfect; it was hardly a couple of inches thick. The weather God was kindly disposed towards us and offered us a perfect summit day. After trudging along the broad ridge for about an hour we perused Saser Kangri II on our right. Saser Kangri III was still not visible due to the presence of humps in front of us towards the northeast which constitute the highest location on the mountain. The closest hump was approximately 200 m ahead of us. By 1.30 p.m. we reached the highest point. When we reached the top of the hump, both Saser Kangri II and III became visible. We took extensive photographs in celebration of our success on the mountain. The nine summiteers were Debraj Dutta, Subrata De, Prasanta Gorai, Phurba Sherpa, Lakpa Sherpa (Sr), Mingma Sherpa (Sr), Dawa Sherpa, Lakpa Sherpa (Jr) and I. From this point we could see all four peaks of the Saser group, i.e. starting from the north - Saser Kangri IV, Saser Kangri I to its right, Saser Kangri III and Saser Kangri II further to the right. To the left of Saser Kangri IV, we could see Mamostong Kangri, Rimo group, Teram Kangri and eight thousanders like K2, Gasherbrum, Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat. Apart from these many lofty peaks were visible towards the northwest, which we photographed. The ridge of the Plateau Peak spans more than 1200 m with small humps dotted along its length. Our expedition team covered a large stretch of the Plateau ridge and headed towards northeast as indicated in the Russian contour map.
Unlike a conventional mountain that has a triangular appearance, here on the Plateau Peak, true to its name, we traversed for four hours gaining a height of about 200 m from the western end of the plateau towards the eastern end of the plateau. The excellent technical work undertaken by Phurba and his Sherpa team on the rocks of the dangerous west ridge was one of the finest efforts on sheer rock at such high altitude. Our maiden success on Plateau peak was principally facilitated by their climbing skill coupled with excellent teamwork. This effort led to a large team of nine climbers succeeding on a virgin peak that had eluded many brave attempts in the past.
It was doubly tricky during the descent. The radiant sun during the day had melted the ice around the ice screws. Migma moved in the front in order secure them to ensure the safe descent of the team. By 7.30 p.m., when darkness set in, we had descended the rock wall and had reached the upper slope of the rock pinnacle. It was a frightening feeling to see the dangerous slopes that we had negotiated in the dead of the night. We switched on our head lamps again and continued our slog. By about 9.00 p.m., we discerned the faint lights of Camp 3, where four of our members were stationed. It was an emotional welcome and they assisted us in untying our crampons and in removing heavy boots and seat harnesses.
On 1 August by late afternoon we reached Camp 1 to a joyous welcome.
The team finally came down to Phukpoche on 7 August and reached Kolkata on 12 August to a warm reception by the media and the mountaineering fraternity in Kolkata.
Debraj Dutta (leader) Subrata De (Deputy Leader), Pradeep C Sahoo, Prasanta Gorai, Phurba Sherpa, Mingma Sherpa (Jr), Migma Sherpa (Sr) Lakpa Tenzing Sherpa Dawa Sherpa (Asst Cook) Lakpa Norbu Sherpa,Chetna Sahoo, Parag Kr Mitra, Biplab Banerjee, Adrito Paul, Ganesh Saha, Pasang Gyalzen, Karma Thimle Sherpa (Asst Cook), and Gyalzen Sherpa and Indra Rai (Cook).
Our team did not have access to the Survey of India contour map of this area and had to refer to the Russian contour map which mentions the highest point as 7288 m which nearly matching the height recorded in the list published by Indian Mountaineering Foundation – 7287 m. The Spanish map, on the other hand, shows the highest point of the Plateau Peak to be 7300 m. Thus we can see a difference of heights of the same peak as mentioned in the IMF list, the Russian map and the Spanish map. The IMF may like to reconcile this difference5.
First ascent of Plateau Peak (7300 m) achieved by a large team from the Kolkata Section of the Himalayan Club. They approached the mountain from the western side via Phukpoche glacier. This peak was attempted many times in the past without success.