The bear kept visiting base camp every evening and just wouldn’t go away.
None of our party had ever seen a Himalayan Brown Bear before so initially this was very exciting. After several days though it became clear that Rinku, our Liaison Officer, was tiring of the situation. The standard tips he had been given for dealing with bears – shout, chase it away, light a fire etc. - were not having the desired effect and he, Prittam our cook and Kapil our kitchen boy were getting a bit weary of staying up half the night to protect our food supplies.
‘I think it best that we finish the expedition early’ he announced.
Over the years I have experienced an interesting array of Himalayan challenges aside from the climbing but this was a new one on me.
As it happened though the members of the British Hagshu Expedition 2014 were lying content in their tents letting retrospective pleasure flow over them. Steve Burns and Ian Cartwright had all but climbed an unclimbed, un-named 6000 m peak and Paul Ramsden and I had managed a week long traverse of Hagshu, the Matterhorn of Zanskar.
Fresh snow lay on the ground, the sky was grey and there was no particular reason to hang around. Getting back to home and work a few days early always goes down well and we were happy to go along with Rinku’s suggestion.
It had been an unusual trip. Hagshu first appeared on my radar 25 years ago when I spotted its distinctive outline when climbing in Kishtwar in 1989. Unknown to me it was climbed for the first time that year, firstly by a Polish team up the southeast ridge and then, days later, by a British team up the east face. I saw it again when I returned to Kishtwar in 1993 and again when climbing in the area with Paul in 2012 and 2013. By late 2013 Paul and I decided that it had risen to the top of our list of exciting objectives. Steve Burns and Ian Cartwright were keen to join us and so the British Hagshu Expedition 2014 came into being.
Mountaineering in India is strictly controlled by a permit system and by January 2014 we had booked the north face of Hagshu for the post monsoon season. Bureaucracy can be a major hurdle in Himalayan mountaineering and we felt pleased to feel that, ascents in the meantime aside, we would have the opportunity to attempt the first ascent in September. How wrong could we be? a week or two before our departure the indian authorities issued two further permits for the same face at the same time as we would be there. An American team had other aspirations but this still meant that a Slovenian team1 comprising three of the world’s best Alpinists, Marko Prezelj, luca lindic and Ales cesen, had been granted a permit for ‘our’ objective. And they would be getting there a week ahead of us. we were not best pleased.
An attraction of Hagshu for us was that we would approach through Ladakh and Zanskar which were areas that we had not been to before. Much as I was aware that the climate in Ladakh is very different to that of Kishtwar I wasn’t quite prepared to see sand dunes as we flew into Leh. Equally I was not prepared for the proudly advertised ‘Leh Beautification Project’ which appeared intent on carrying out every aspect of ‘beautification’ at the same time. The network of deep trenches in the streets was such that access to many of the shops was only possible by crossing dubiously balanced planks with significant drops below. Overall though, Leh was more touristy than I expected with a vast array of cultural artefacts for sale. As one shop very truthfully advertised: ‘more junk upstairs.’
Being keen as ever to save time and get to base camp quickly we left Leh immediately to drive along the 200 km or so of tarmac to the town of Kargil close to the Pakistan border. Unfortunately though, I missed most of the stunning scenery as I spent much of the journey calling for our driver to stop so I could be car sick.
I had heard many rude comments about Kargil but initial impressions were pleasing in that the delightfully inappropriately named Hotel Greenland had hot water taps that ran with hot water. This was a near first for me on climbing trips to India. That aside the atmosphere was decidedly tense with caged army trucks, complete with security guards, acting as school buses. In September the temperature was comfortable but Rinku told us that winters were ferocious and the coldest temperature ever recorded in India, minus 45 degrees, was at the nearby town of Dras.
The second day of our drive took us past the remote monastery of Ringdom. An armed guard at a checkpoint outside seemed ludicrously unnecessary until Rinku explained that the monastery was attacked by terrorists in 2000 and several monks, along with a German hitch-hiker, were killed. To us it seemed the most tranquil, remote and unlikely target. The news came as a sharp reminder that this is a far from a peaceful part of the world.
The road continued over the 4400 m Pensi la and dropped into Zanskar. As the only motorable route into Zanskar we were reliant on this pass still being open on our return journey in mid October. Nicki, my wife, once had to spend a whole winter stranded in a Ladakh valley so I was acutely aware of this risk, not to mention that a winter temperature of minus 45 degrees had been recorded not that far away.
The village of Akshu was small and friendly and one of the first we reached in Zanskar. Prittam and Kapil were here already and had arranged for yaks to take us to base camp the next day.
Base camp was supposedly two days walk away. In reality though that meant that we had to pay for two days but everyone recognised that it would be done in one. Research had revealed that a team back in the 1990s had spent an entire day walking up the nearside of the river only to decide that they couldn’t cross to where they wanted to be. The river did look to be a significant challenge. A couple of yaks chose to cross via a rickety bridge but most clearly relished the refreshing challenge of deep, fast flowing glacial water. With loads of perhaps 100 Kg plus a yak driver on top I could hardly believe it when the water level rose to over half way up the loads and yet they still just kept going at a steady pace, stopping for an occasional drink of the silt laden water. I never did quite work out how they avoided being swept downstream. Impressive beasts, yaks!
Paul R. on walk in to Hagshu
Disguised donkeys on the early part of the walk in to Hagshu
Our base camp site, in the ablation valley on the true left bank of the Hagshu glacier, was idyllic. The Slovenians and Americans were camping close together five minutes or so higher and the next day we wandered up to say hello. The three Americans were enthusiastic about their intended line on Barnaj and from the Slovenian team we met Luca who had stayed back with a stomach upset but told us that Marko and Ales were undertaking a reconnaissance of the west face of Hagshu. We made suitably encouraging noises and set about our own plans.
Hagshu and surronding valleys and glaciers
Steve and Ian had in mind starting out with exploration of unclimbed 6000 m peaks to the south of base camp whereas Paul and I were focused exclusively on the north face of Hagshu. First though we needed to acclimatise and so all four of us set out together to spend a few nights on a c. 5700 m peak to the northwest of Hagshu. This, we reasoned, should satisfy all our needs; Paul and I would get a good close up view of our intended route and Steve and Ian would be able to enjoy a panoramic view of the approach to the peaks they were interested in.
After three days of heavy breathing, the four of us were camped in a wind scoop at about 5500 m. It seemed a lovely calm spot when we arrived but by mid way through the night I was bracing myself against the sidewall as each gust roared through. I uncomfortably recalled the last time I experienced this kind of situation. That was in East Tibet back in 2007 and then Paul had eventually asked me to climb on top of him to try and stop the wind lifting his side of the tent. On this occasion though he snored (‘breathing heavily’ he calls it!) contentedly, blissfully unaware of my exertions.
Hagshu from base camp
By morning all was calm and he was disparagingly disbelieving of my night-time efforts. But the skies had cleared and we were treated to a wonderful panorama of the Kishtwar peaks to the south. It was amazing to think that down there the valleys were lush and well populated whereas the Zanskar valley that we had approached through was harsh, dry and unpopulated. An amazing contrast over such a short distance!
We moved the tent to a better position a little higher, climbed up to the top of the peak and returned to relax and read in the tent. The next day Steve and Ian decreed themselves sufficiently acclimatised for their plans and headed off down to base camp whereas Paul and I decided to spend another day sucking in thin air before caching our equipment below the north face and heading down ourselves. On the way down we left a note in the Slovenian’s advance base camp tent indicating the line that we planned to take and saying we hoped the west face was to their liking and we would see their footprints on the top.
The next day we were back at base camp and Paul was peering through binoculars at the north face.
‘They are on ‘our’ line’
Sure enough there were prominent tracks in the snow cone at the foot heading straight for the line that we had dreamed of for nine months and intended to start out for the next day. We were disappointed but there was no way either of us wanted to follow in their footsteps.
It was time to refocus. Rebuilding enthusiasm when one’s heart has been set on a specific objective is always difficult but on the bright side the northern end of Hagshu was not short of inspirational ground. A day of discussion, deliberation and binocular gazing ensued before we decided to go for a prominent slanting line on the north east face. Actually it was more the eastern side of the north face but it seemed more straightforward to describe it as the northeast face.
NE (left side) and N (right side) of Hagshu
Paul R. at second bivouac on face
Acclimatised now, we comfortably reached the foot of the face in a day with enough time for Paul to retrieve our cache of equipment from beneath the north face while I put up the tent. The good weather spell showed every sign of continuing and as we settled down for the night excitement levels were rising. I had first been inspired by Hagshu 25 years ago and at long last was about to try and climb it.
‘There we are. Our bergshcrund for the year crossed’
Paul and I are both family men with full time jobs such that this has become a regular and true annual comment of mine.
From a distance the initial slopes had looked to be good snow but in fact they were glassy ice with just a dusting of snow. Soon we were climbing one at a time easing the calf muscles gently back into the joys of Himalayan ice slopes.
Paul and I have developed our own routine over 13 years of climbing together in the Himalaya. One thing we like to do is stop early, soak up our surroundings and just generally enjoy being up high in the mountains. On a normal day we will start looking for a bivouac spot at around 3 p.m. And so it was with much pleasure that, at just about exactly our ‘start search in earnest’ time, we came across a perfectly horizontal projecting prow of rock with a covering of snow just thick enough to smooth out and pitch the tent on. It hardly seemed necessary but we belayed the tent and ourselves before settling down to catch up on a little reading.
It was perhaps inevitable that a good night’s sleep should lead to a leisurely start. Thus far the way had been obvious but now the weakness we were following reared up into a series of steep walls festooned with hanging icicles. A Scottish style gully cleaved the lower section but that was regularly flushed by waves of spindrift and ended in an overhanging amphitheatre. The best option looked to be steep ground right of the gully. That was at least safe from spindrift avalanches but it did look to offer hard mixed climbing. Fortunately that’s the kind of climbing Paul and I like.
Paul R. at sitting bivouac. Third on the face
Paul R. on day 4. Hagshu glacier below
The day progressed in the way of my ideal Himalayan climbing day. Cloudless skies, difficult pitches with much heavy breathing, relaxing sessions of belaying and a generous amount of time marvelling at our surroundings from a position completely safe from objective dangers. And to add to it being a great day we unexpectedly came across a perfect, near flat, wind blown snow ledge at just the right time. For the second night in a row the tent was pitched perfectly. It felt almost too good to be true.
Ahead the obvious way forward was to move left into an area where snow was blasted up under overhangs. I’m always wary when I see this as it almost inevitably means that heavy waves of spindrift pour down when there is just the slightest snowfall. Today though luck was with us, the weather was calm, the sky clear and tricky mixed pitches led on to hard ice slopes leading up towards the summit buttress.
At third bivouac on face - sitting bivouac
Our plan had been to climb this direct but now we were here the obvious way was to move right and climb the right hand side. But the ice slope we would have to cross looked as glassy and brittle as that we had just climbed. It wasn’t far but climbing really hard ice is exhausting and I was tired. A quick foray confirmed fears that we might not have enough daylight to make it to possible bivouac sites on the far side. Progress was faltering. 30 m below us the snow/ice fluting we were standing on eased to a short horizontal section which looked as if it might provide a third night of campsite type comfort.
I lowered and Paul abseiled. Together we then stood attached to an ice screw and contemplated. The spot was nowhere near as good as we had hoped. The sharp snow crest wasn’t horizontal at all and turned to ice at a depth of a few centimetres.
‘This is crap.’
Paul was right. But to either side were ice slopes with no chance of cutting even a reasonable bum ledge. We would just have to make do. At this point though we seemed to lose co-ordination. I hacked away with the optimistic intention of getting the poles in and draping the tent over the crest while Paul hacked away working towards a sitting width ledge. After a bit we took a break to marvel at our conflicting handiwork. It wasn’t looking good. In fact it was bad, very bad. It had become clear that the ice was so hard that all we could do was cut into the crest and make a triangular ledge about 50 cm wide at its widest point. We ended up with a sitting side-by-side arrangement using the tent as a bivouac sack. That would have been all very nice on a linear ledge but didn’t work at all well on a triangular one, particularly after my side collapsed. Tetchiness soon prevailed.
Over the years Paul and I have climbed together he has increasingly complained about my fidgeting and me about his snoring. It used to be that I fell asleep readily on such bivouacs but the tables have definitely turned on that one. Soon Paul was ‘breathing heavily’ while I upset his sleeping by experimenting with numerous different hanging positions (fidgeting Paul would call it). At length we settled down to me hanging deep inside the fabric while Paul sat upright with his head out the top soaking in the perfect night.
‘There’s a lot of activity down there.’
I squirmed upright and looked at my watch. It was 3.00 a.m. I peered down towards base camp but without my contact lenses in I didn’t stand a hope in hell of seeing anything.
‘Lights all over the place at base camp and on the south side of Barnaj too’ enlarged Paul.
This gave us a subject to chat about and pass the time. We knew the Americans were trying the north side of Barnaj and concluded that they must have succeeded and for some reason chosen to descend the south side through the night. The base camp lights were more of a mystery and gave rise to many theories. We never guessed though that the truth was that a bear was showing great interest in our food store and resisting all attempts to frighten it off. And that the Americans had retreated from the north side of Barnaj and were making a determined attempt from the south which had to be done partially at night because they had such little time left before they were due to leave.
At this level the traverse towards the right edge of the summit buttress looked more amenable than it had the day before. The slopes formed the top of the north face and it was still early in the morning when we joined the Slovenians’ tracks exiting from the face to a fine bivouac spot. If we had pressed on rather than spent so much time cutting a small, uncomfortable triangular ledge we could have enjoyed a luxury camping spot. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Ahead there were tracks to follow which was a new Himalayan experience for the two of us. Somehow it made everything feel more familiar and less adventurous. We followed them up to steep, sunny and pleasant rock climbing and then on towards the previously unclimbed north summit. Just before the north summit we were surprised to find an extensive flat area which just called out to be camped on.
From the views we had seen our best guess was that the ridge between here and the main summit would be long, narrow and devoid of easy bivouac places. And, in any event, the weather was so good that it seemed a shame not to use this place to enjoy a good night’s sleep. The wind was light and there was no need to belay. We wandered around unroped, marvelled at our position, felt very lucky to be able to get to such a place and generally relaxed.
Much as we don’t bother with altimeters and suchlike we were obviously gaining height well as we could increasingly see over the top of the nearby 6000 m peaks. Beyond them interesting potential objectives increasingly reared their heads for closer study later.
The north summit was just five minutes above us and it was something of a surprise to gain it the next morning and see that the way ahead was much more straightforward than we had expected. I wasn’t quite sure whether to be disappointed or not. Easy walking led to a saddle followed by a beautiful, if exhausting, few hours along the ridge to the summit that we had been dreaming of for so long.
For the last few years it has been a ritual for Paul and I to take summit selfies. We can then use these to relive summit moments and chart our ageing process. Summit formalities over, it was time to continue the traverse with a descent of the southeast ridge, the route taken by the Polish first ascentionists back in 1989. We knew that there had been unsuccessful attempts to repeat this line and were uncomfortably aware that we had not been able to get a decent view of it before starting the traverse. That said the Slovenian tracks continued inexorably onwards. We passed their comfortable looking bivouac spot just below the summit and continued along a sharper ridge until abseiling became necessary. Soon we were hanging free on big abseils down rock pillars wondering exactly where the Polish team had climbed back in 1989. Wherever they went it was certainly a fine effort.
Looking from the N summit towards the main summit
Traversing the summit ridge towards the main summit. PR in the foreground
Mick F. at bivouac on descent. Kishtwar Kailash is biggest peak on the skyline
Clouds were at last appearing on the horizon and after a final bivouac below the difficulties we were soon down on the enormous snowfields of the upper Hagshu glacier. Heavy snow began and a white-out made the tracks difficult to follow but by that afternoon, seven days after leaving, we were back at base camp. Steve and Ian had arrived the day before having completed all but the final overhanging five m of their peak.
By next day our perfect weather window seemed to be over. It had snowed heavily overnight, the bear was making life difficult and Rinku was keen to leave. It was time to return to our other lives.
It had been a great outing. But three teams at the same base camp did not appeal to my sense of adventure. I’ll be checking my objectives file very carefully for next year. Maybe areas protected by difficult access issues have a lot going for them after all.
Members: L to R - Paul Ramsden, Ian Cartwright, Mick Fowler and Steve Burns
A two-man alpine style ascent of a new route on the northeast face of Hagshu. This week round ascent was in September-October 2014.
Arrived base camp: 22 September
Start of climb: 2 October (left BC on 1 October)
Summit date: 6 October
Return to base camp 7 October
Dates for acclimatisation climb (very slow as main purpose was to acclimatise):
Left base camp: 24 September (All)
Summit date: 27 September (Steve/Ian) 28 September (Mick/Paul) Return to base camp: 29 September (All)
(Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden)
On 1 October we set off for the peak west of base camp reaching its south ridge after two days. After another day moving the camp to a better position we reached the summit ridge and south summit on 4 Oct. A deep notch and large rock wall barred access to the highest point, which was only a few metres higher.
We estimated the height at around 6050 m. (Ian altimeter at S end of summit ridge read 5975m but comparing various heights to the GPS of the Slovenians the altimeter seemed to have a consistent under reading of 50 m or so - we only found this out near the end of the expedition).
We descended to our ridge camp the same day and to base camp the following day 5th Oct.
Note: All photographs from Fowler/Ramsden collection