Our initial objective was to attempt peak Shahi Kangri (6934 m), East of the Saser la in July / August 2014. Our application was sent to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in March 2014. However in June 2014, we were informed that due to security issues, it was not likely that the permits would be issued to us. Our Equipment had already been dispatched to Leh by road in May and our airline tickets booked. Under the circumstances, we immediately switched to an alternative objective and sent a fresh application to the IMF on 23 June 2014 for climbing in the Rassa glacier, Nubra valley, East Karakoram. Our objective was to attempt peak Thugu and explore the Rassa glacier, which had received only one visit by a mountaineering expedition in 2001. We received our clearance immediately.
In 2001, and Indian British expedition led by Harish Kapadia and Chris Bonington visited the area and made several ascents in the Phunangma glacier (adjoining the Rassa glacier). Harish Kapadia and his team also briefly visited the Rassa glacier and attempted Thugu Peak. (Himalayan Journal Vol. 58 – 2002). Other than this singular visit, there was no other recorded visit to the Rassa glacier. We studied the report of that expedition in detail and also took personal guidance from him before the expedition. Extensive research of the topography of the area was also carried out on Google Earth and maps available at the library of The Himalayan Club. Divyesh Muni (leader) had visited the adjoining Phunangma glacier on the 2001 expedition. We had a fairly good idea of the approach route to Rassa glacier.
Rassa glacier is located off Nubra valley, northeast of the famous Khardung la and southeast of Siachen glacier. Except for a single visit to the snout in 2001, the glacier had not seen any mountaineering and/or trekking activity. None of the peaks on the glacier were even attempted before.
Our team left Mumbai on 15 July 2014 and flew into Leh. Our approach trek started from the Buddhist shrine near Tirith on 24 July. The first day’s trek started with a steep climb of 700 m on loose gravel. A rough path exists but still poses a challenge. Although the Karakoram mules are surefooted, one of them missed a step while carrying our loads up this trail, and ended up dead several hundred feet below. We camped as Wasekhar, by the river Tirit Phu in a dusty campsite. The following days trek started with an hour of bushwhacking beyond Wasekhar. Since the trail was rarely used, it had not been maintained by the villagers. It took several hours for the staff to unload the animals, ferry the loads through the bushes and reload them. That night we camped at the beautiful Phonglas campsite with a grand view of Nya Kangri. We were to reach base camp on the third day. Unfortunately, we were stopped by a raging river originating from Phunangma glacier. All attempts to find a safe crossing point nearby proved futile so the team was forced to camp on the southern banks of the river for the night.
Karakoram Adventure 2014 - Route Map
We had to trek to the snout of Phunangma glacier and cross to the other side over its icy surface in order to establish base camp on 28 July at 4820 m. That day, we secured a rope across the river to transfer loads and members during the rest of the expedition. We had spent three additional days reaching Base Camp due to this detour to the snout of Phunangma glacier.
To Advance Base Camp
The next few days were spent in reconnaissance of the area and to find a route to the advanced base camp on Rassa glacier. The route climbed through the slopes behind BC into the Rassa nala. Once we crossed the junction of the Rassa nala and the Arganglas nala, the terrain eases and one comes to some beautiful pastures next to the river. This was the proposed location of our BC. We then climbed on the lateral moraine on the true left of the Rassa glacier. About a kilometere further, was our ABC. It was a considerable effort flattening out an area to pitch our tents. Water had to be sourced from a little distance, but the camp was safe from rock-fall that constantly came down the slopes behind us.
On 2 August 2014, the trekkers, who had accompanied us, made their way back whilst the climbers shifted to ABC (5220 m) to start climbing in earnest. The views were stupendous all round. We could see the peaks towards Hundar in the distance. The various subsidiary glaciers of Rassa came tumbling down into chaos of broken ice at the snout. The peaks all around were fascinating. It took us some time to decide our further plans considering the endless possibilities seen around.
Our movement ahead was paused for a day due to a mysterious but hilarious incident. Our support staff reported that they had visited the BC and found all 30 eggs kept there missing! They unfortunately could not make out whether any of our equipment or personal belongings were also touched. We would have to go and check the camp. As we descended, we noticed a group of trekkers on the opposite bank of the Rassa glacier. Our paths met near the junction of the Rassa and Arganglas valley. We had a communication problem since the seven of them were Russians and knew very little English. They were self-supported and without a Liaison Officer so it was difficult to get much details of their trip. We understood that they had just crossed over from the Sumur nala and were on their way down. We got down to BC and found all our stuff intact (except the 30 eggs). The Russians passed through the camp and carried on towards the Phunagma glacier. The mystery of the eggs was not solved but our staff did find a bag of sugar left behind by someone on the opposite end of our tyrolean traverse rope across the river. We presume, someone decide to barter sugar for the eggs!! We got back to ABC to a very unhappy cook.
Rassa glacier consists of many subsidiaries. We entered the branch which was named ’Glacier 1’ and established Camp 1(5780m).The route to Camp1 initially started along the left of Glacier 1 along the lateral moraine. We had to cross on to the glacier, which provided easier ground than the unstable moraine. We walked on the ice for about a kilometere before moving over to the lateral moraine on the true right of Glacier I. The glacier was bare of snow and huge gaping crevasses had opened up. We set up Camp about four hours from ABC at the junction of the subsidiary glacier coming down from a group of three peaks on the right of the Glacier 1. A panorama of peaks had opened out.
First Ascent of Tusuhm Kangri
We decided to climb P. 6219 m located north of our Camp 1 on the divide of Glacier I & II first as it would provide an opportunity to view the routes for all the adjoining peaks of the glacier. On 8 August an attempt was made. The initial route was over easy angled glacier. There was only a thin layer of snow on the ice. The final 200 m of the climb was on a 50 degree ice slope. The bergschrund at the start of the climb had opened up. We decided to fix rope to safeguard our return. Unfortunately, by the time we had fixed the first 150 m of rope, the weather closed in. We decided to retreat and attempt the climb in better weather conditions.
Divyesh Muni on the summit slopes of Tusuhm Kangri, Nya Kangri and Rassa glacier in the background (Rajesh Gadgil)
We returned to the peak on 12 August to complete the climb. The initial 150 m of the route was straight up the ice wall till the angle eased off a bit. From here we traversed for another 150 m to reach the rocky summit pyramid. We fixed almost 300 m of rope to this point. The final pitch was steep, over loose rocks. Rajesh Gadgil, Atin Sathe, Pemba Norboo, Phurba, Pasang and I delicately made our way to the summit by 11.20 a.m. We were rewarded by grand views on all sides. This also gave us an opportunity to study the peaks around for possible routes of ascent. We had a complete view of ‘Glacier 2’ of Rassa which served as an excellent reference for further plans. We named the peak ‘Tusuhm Kangri’ meaning ‘triangular peak in the corner’ in Ladakhi language.
Climbing steep slopes of Tusuhm Kangri (Rajesh Gadgil)
Having spent considerable time in Glacier 1, and completed our study of the peaks around, we now decided to shift our attention to the peaks in Glacier 2 and 3. Back to ABC, we now located a way to the entrance of Glacier 2 and 3. We followed our earlier route up Glacier 1 till we crossed over to the lateral moraine on the true right of Glacier 1. Then the route took us through a maze of boulders and rocks between the snout of the northern part of Rassa glacier and the peak at the northwestern corner of Glacier 1. There was risk of rock fall from the peak above, but fortunately, none took place.
Tusuhm Kangri seen from Rassa glacier (Rajesh Gadgil)
Two days of bad weather kept us in our tents at ABC.The boulder field we had to cross had become treacherous due to the accumulation of fresh snow and we had to wait for it to melt before we shifted camp.
On 18 August, We were at our new camp, named Camp 2 (5635 m) located near the northwestern corner of Glacier 2. A quick recce on the same day enabled us to decide on putting our next camp on Glacier III. In the limited time left with us, this would give us better climbing opportunities than Glacier II. The route to the camp was fairly straightforward, except for a few major crevasses to be negotiated at the turn of the glacier.
We shifted to this high camp, named Camp 3 (5810 m)on 20 August, located below the southern slopes of P. 6250 m and decided to make an attempt.
Crevasses on the way to Rassa Kangri (Rajesh Gadgil)
First Ascent of Rassa Kangri
This peak is one of the most prominent in the area and was constantly visible from the time we had entered Rassa glacier.
Rassa Kangri. (Rajesh Gadgil)
Summit ridge of Rassa Kangri. (Rajesh Gadgil)
On 21 August, we were to start our climb by 5.00 a.m. but that morning the notorious Karakoram wind started lashing at us. It chilled us to the bones making it difficult to get out of the tents. We sat shivering, hoping there would be some letup. Finally we moved out by 7.00 a.m. After the initial 100 m of easy angled glacier, we had to negotiate a 200 m ice wall to the north which was about 50 to 60 degrees inclination. This would lead us to the summit ridge. The ridge turned out to be knife edged with some sections heavily corniced. Since we ran out of rope, we had to pull up the lowest two ropes from the ice wall to enable us to safeguard the final stretch of the ridge leading towards west to the summit.
Rajesh, Atin, Vineeta and I along with our three Sherpas, Pasang, Phurba and Pemba were at the top by 2.30 p.m. with excellent views on all sides. Considering the prominence of the peak in the glacier, we decided to name it ‘Rassa Kangri’.
Further exploration and climb of Shukpa Pass
We now had only two days left before winding up camps, so on the following day, we went for a recce to the head of Glacier 3 to look at the high peaks at the head of the glacier. A few hours on the glacier brought us to Shukpa pass (6110 m) that leads to South Shukpa Kunchang glacier and further to Shyok river on the other side. The pass was fairly gentle and could be a possible alternative to Saserla linking Shyok valley with Nubra valley. The peaks around the pass looked promising and challenging. Unfortunately we had run out of time and resources to attempt any more peaks. The weather was also packing up, so we quickly made our way back to camp. We wound it up and with heavy loads retreated to Camp2.
On East Rassa la (Rajesh Gadgil)
Rassa glacier panoramic view (Rajesh Gadgil)
Crossing from Rassa Glacier to Sumur Lungpa
Our thoughts were now on exploring an alternative route back to Nubra valley. We had been eyeing a high col that would lead us to Sumur nala in the north. With just three days in hand, we decided to give it a go. While we attempt to across into the Sumur nala, the staff would wind up the camps and return to Nubra from the Arganglas valley with all the loads on horseback.
We packed rations for three days and with bare minimum equipment, Rajesh, Atin, Vineeta, Pemba and I started off across the glacier on 24 August. We crossed the glacier and headed north. A gentle slope led to West Rassa la. We hoped an equally gentle slope would lead us to the other side but our hopes were dashed as we stood at the col (5930 m). A sheer icy drop of more than 200 m greeted us. We could not cross it with the gear we were carrying on our backs within the time available!
After much thought we decided to try the crossing into the inviting Sumur nala once more….this time from East Rassa la. That night, we camped at our Camp 4, located at the junction of both routes at the base of P. 6189 m. On 25 August, we made an early start and reached East Rassa la (6000 m) by 11.00 a.m. A close scrutiny of the drop on the other side revealed a possible route across.
We ran out the entire length of our climbing rope over the steep ice, but were still about 10 m short from the first ledge. It caused a few anxious moments till we climbed down those 10 m to the safety of the ledge. Another 25 m of rappel and we were through. It took us considerable time to descend due to the hard ice covered by an uneven layer of soft fresh snow, and the steps we made kept collapsing below our feet.
As we started our way down the glacier, we were caught in strong winds and snowfall. In low visibility we made our way down unknown territory. It was nearly sunset by the time we reached one of the most beautiful camping spots on the banks of Sumur lake, thoroughly exhausted but satisfied with the adventures of the day. On 26 August, we trekked down Sumur nala, facing a two-hour snowstorm and then endless ups and downs and twists and turns over the 18 km route to Nubra valley concluding our expedition at the gates of Samsthaling monastery.
Peaks Climbed: (Both were first ascents)
Passes Visited / Crossed:
Members : Rajesh Gadgil, Atin Sathe, Vineeta Muni and Divyesh Muni (leder)
Period: July / August 2014
Sponsored by : The Himalayan Club