Our advance camp was on medial moraine debris at the focal point of the Nama cirque, its altitude 4835 m. The place beckoned comparison with the famous Konkordiaplatz of the Bernese Alps or Karakoram. We were encircled by an impressive but repellent array of serrated rock ridges, fissured séracs and crumpled tributary glaciers. The Nama pass lay a couple of kilometres to our west and offered the only easy way out of the basin. So far as we knew, no mountaineering had ever been accomplished here. Three major 6000 m mountains ringed the watershed. To our southeast a noble peak of contorted sediments reared up to 6150 m. This is known locally as Rajay Jue, the horse mountain. On the south side a pile of séracs and fluted snow-walls culminated in an unnamed summit calotte of 6196 m. The northern rim was dominated by a triple-headed mountain bearded with a small hanging glacier. This was named Cheepaydang - the Peacock Mountain - by the folk down at Kuthi village and certainly exceeded 6200 m in altitude. My excitement to have a whole week in which to explore such a place was tempered only by the obvious difficulty of the objectives….
The Long Approach: We had expended no small effort to reach this untapped corner of the Kumaun Himalaya. First we had to untangle the web of regulations spun by the central and state governments. The only peak officially listed in this locality by Uttarakhand State Government is the sacred 5950 m summit of Adi Kailash, which is some ten km to the north, yet we could count at least nine 6000ers in the range! We applied for a permit to Adi Kailash and proceeded on the assumption that we could climb on any nearby summits, so long as we took the prescribed approach trek up the Kuthi Yankti valley on the east side of the range. Clearance for us to obtain Mountaineering Visas and Inner Line permits then took six months. As team leader my own credentials came under special scrutiny by the Home Ministry and Intelligence Bureau and my minor infraction of carrying a GPS on a trip back in 2004 was still on file!
The journey to base camp was arduous for a team of ten Western climbers, who arrived in India work-weary, jet-lagged and unused to both climate and altitude. From Delhi we took the overnight sleeper to Kathgodam, then bussed through the wonderland of the Kumaun foothills to Dharchula, the main town of the Kali Ganga valley on the Nepalese border. A brief but brutal jeep ride deposited us at the road head, just beyond Mangti nala 30 km up the valley. A motor road is being slowly driven northwards. This sensational balcony cuts through massive beds of gneiss high on the valley flank, but had progressed only two km since my last visit to the region in 2006. Supported by a train of 22 mules we trekked the old Kailash pilgrim trail through Budhi and Garbyang villages to Gunji, where the Kuthi Yankti tributary joins the Kali from the northwest. On our third day of trekking we followed the Adi Kailash route to Kuthi, then branched southwest into the Nama valley. Some four km upstream, we chanced upon a miraculous spring of fresh water, which emerged from arid and gigantic slopes of talus and conglomerate. On 25 September our base camp was pitched by this fortuitous stream at 3990 m.
The atmosphere was distinctly autumnal, but long experience has taught me that the early days of October give clear weather and optimum conditions for climbing on the peaks of Uttarakhand. Clearly, the monsoon of 2014 had failed to touch these northern margins of the Greater Himalayan chain. The south and east flanks of the mountains were denuded of snow below 6000 m and revealed their complex geological structure. Rhythmically-bedded grey dolomites, purple marls and black shales, ruptured here and there by thrusts, dipped and twisted at crazy angles across the peaks. In these sedimentary layers solid holds and belay anchors would be sparse.
Our team comprised a Scottish trio, including veteran pioneer Andy Nisbet, who planned to climb independently, while guides Jonathan Preston and I held supervisory sway over the remaining five - Mike Page, a recruitment manager from Australia, Swede Patrik Franzen, who owns a chain of restaurants and a brewery in London, banker David King, archaeologist Steve Birch and exiled Scot, Gordon Scott, who lived in Malaysia. Their collective past accomplishments in the Himalaya ranged from an ascent of Nun to pioneering climbs on Satling Spires, and virgin 6000ers in Lahaul and Zanskar. Jonathan had climbed with me on ascents of Nanda Kot’s south face in 1995 and Nilkanth’s west ridge in 2000.
Adi Kailash Region
Although we had brought a couple of hundred metres of static line we intended to climb in alpine-style. In the event the only fixed rope placed on the whole expedition was at the crossing of the Nama river a mile upstream from base camp. Our three Sherpas and Garhwali high-altitude supporter, Mangal Singh, assisted in load-ferrying as we ranged across the lower slopes in our acclimatisation phase. Above the river crossing a huge permanent snow-bridge spanned the river in a section of gorge. Beyond this an expanse of alluvial flats led up to the main glacier snout at 4150 m.
The line of ascent takes a couloir system on the S Face above the nama glacier
While the others ploughed the Nama trail, I re-crossed the river on the snow-bridge and struck up left on lateral moraine ridges towards Rajay Jue. On Google Earth, I had noticed a sizeable lake hereabouts, and, sure enough, I alighted upon the tarn at 4550 m. Here was the ideal place for an acclimatisation camp and the following afternoon the seven of us pitched tents on sandy flats beside the turquoise-blue waters. As befits a pioneering trip we had no fixed objectives and these early forays were our chance to assess objectives and pick feasible routes. In 2006 I had seen these mountains only at a distance. This uncertainty coupled with the sense of discovery is utterly intoxicating to me, but doesn’t suit those who need a single focus in their mission.
The lake camp allowed us to reconnoitre the impressive northern defences of Rajay Jue. A side glacier ran to the north of the mountain and we climbed this to a col at 5190 m. A sizeable cairn evidenced previous visitation, but the col had little obvious practical use. On its far side lay a slumbering glacier, completely blanketed in stones. This dropped into a valley which appeared to rejoin the Kuthi Yankti downstream near Gunji. Inspection of Rajay Jue revealed tantalising lines but no clear opportunities. The upper north ridge looked superb but potential approaches were either bold or complex. I could readily imagine our crampons scraping through the snow on to dipping rock slabs devoid of protection. Although we might conceivably get up these routes, descent might be problematic in absence of sure abseil points.
Rajay Jue (c 6150m) from Cheepaydang Camp 1
The northward view over to Cheepaydang’s south face was rather more encouraging. A stepped ridge bounded the hanging icefield under the summit. Further left a big snow ramp climbed up to the saddle between the mountain’s highest central summit and its western top. We struck the lake camp and returned to base, with the intention of following the Scottish team up the Nama glacier to explore these options.
So it passed that two days later we pitched our advance camp in the middle of the Nama amphitheatre. We marvelled briefly at the savage scene, before an afternoon squall blew down from the Nama pass and sent us scuttling into our tents. The first day of October slipped by without any clear forward plan. Tomorrow would be our day of decision……
The Ascent of Cheepaydang: Dawn comes early over the Nama glacier even in the autumn. The peaks flushed with sudden warmth a little after 6 a.m. Yesterday’s storm had completely cleared. We had been cooped inside for 12 hours, and there was no temptation to linger cosily in my bag. The moment of truth had arrived. I scrambled outside in my inner boots and greedily scanned the encirclement of peaks before homing my sights on the south wall of Cheepaydang. Access to the stepped ridge was in fact threatened by the hanging glacier tongue, but swinging my binoculars leftwards across the face towards the ramp I immediately spied a chink of hope.
The rock walls were tilted and congenitally loose, but from a third way up the snow ramp a deep couloir cut rightwards into the upper mass of the face, emerging at a snowy shoulder high on the summit ridge. Though its bed was out of sight this gully could and should contain snow and ice and for once there was no particular objective danger in view. My heart leapt. We had found our stairway to heaven.
Martin leads one of the rock pitches in the couloir
Martin close to Camp 2
At 8 a.m. after brews and muesli Jonathan and I mustered the team outside. Motivational speaking at 4800 m in a chill breeze needs to be quick and to the point.
‘This is our moment; you’ve put the work in; we have a line; now we need to grasp the nettle…’
After a brief silence our members each made their response. David is the most polite variety of Englishman. It would be difficult to get annoyed with him.
‘If it’s OK with you I prefer to do something a little bit easier…’ he suggested, clearly oblivious to the fact that every alternative looked horrendous.
I turned to Patrik but he bore the expression of intense Scandinavian melancholy.
‘I’m just not into it this year man; it’s just not happening for me…’. I suspect Patrik is a man who needs a fixed mission and his confidence had been knocked by a bout of nausea at the lake camp.
Steve is normally a whirlwind of energy, Staffordshire born and bred, the eternal enthusiast…. but not today.
‘Me blisters are playing up, Martin, and me hands are badly cracked, and me headache is still bothering me; I’m not feeling me best’, he lamented
Things were looking grim. I really wanted to do this peak. In 2006 I had admired its pyramidal splendour from Kuthi and glimpsed its prodigious north face. Cheepaydang was one of the most beautiful virgin peaks I had ever seen. My predicament bore the hallmarks of a failing pitch on TV’s Dragons’ Den. Three dragons were already out and only two remained. I turned despairingly to Mike and Gordon. To my delight they both declared ‘Cheepaydang’ with a conviction that gave me absolute confidence of success.
While Jonathan prepared the others for an excursion to the Nama pass we three packed up with feverish intent. We loaded two 60 m Iceline ropes, a medium-sized rack of rock and ice hard-wear, four nights’ worth of food and fuel and two single-skin bivouac tents. At 10 a.m. Gordon led us off over a succession of moraine ridges towards a wall of scree that barred access to the ramp. The loads were crippling – 20 kg at least. Would that we had come in the spring when the acres of piled rocks might be covered with forgiving snows? The whole mass was poised at the limit of natural repose – an angle somewhat over 45°. Specks in the wilderness, we mounted in gentle zig-zags and, as an afternoon storm swept in, we recalled the training stints that gave us the willpower to fight on - for me a double ascent up the 600 m Bealach na Ba on my bike, for Gordon many sweat-drenched days in the Malaysian jungles, and for Mike a gruelling ascent of Mount Cook in New Zealand.
At 5400 m the scree merged into a glacier and we found a flattish pitch between two crevasses for our tents. The clouds cleared and rich evening light suffused the Nama peaks. We ran the Jetboil stove non-stop for three hours on a single can of gas. Mike declined his freeze-dried offering. Suddenly, I felt more than hungry and, mindful of tomorrow’s likely effort, I wolfed down both meals before crashing into my solitary cell. Outside the temperature plunged and the ice cracked in gunshots with the stress of contraction.
Final pitch to summit looking down rama glacier to Panch Chuli
The ramp and gully offered no hope of a camp, or even a commodious bivouac. We had to get to the top in one push – a height gain of well over 600 m. An early start was essential, but I managed to oversleep my alarm by an hour and twilight was already fanning the eastern horizon when we got going at 4.40 a.m. We left one tent behind and pared the sack weights down to a tolerable 16 kg. The ramp started at 40° and was conveniently bedecked with innumerable islands of icy wafers. Two substantial avalanche chutes funnelled down on either side. We crossed the leftmost and headed up to the junction where our gully left the ramp and made its incision through serried rock walls. The angle rose through 45 and up past 50°.
Gordon and Mike traversing the ridge to summit camp SW top behind
The gully, largely unseen in my scan from the glacier, did indeed hold a continuous bed of snow-ice. Small stones were already wheeling down and fresh drifts of powder condemned us to occasional periods of wading. A detour on to the rocks at the edge revealed a splintered mass of mudstones. Gordon reported that one of his crampons was falling apart. In preparation for the trip he had bought designer trousers and state of the art boots, but had decided to rely for grip on a pair of rigid Grivel Rambos of 25 year vintage, which had been festering in his store in Kuala Lumpur for a decade. One of the side brackets was hanging loose. Without spanners to refix it we decided we could push on so long as the front bracket was being held in place by the toe-strap.
Doubts mounted, the sun beat down without mercy and our energies ebbed. In the main gully we were sitting ducks for snow-sloughs and rock-falls, and our progress was grinding to a halt. I surmised that a change in style to pitched climbing might help. I spotted a subsidiary gully with a couple of ice steps up left, and constructed two good cam anchors. The ice steps largely disintegrated and required some deft bridging. As the rope ran out I discovered a second solid belay with two big chock anchors. Protection wasn’t quite as bad as anticipated, and at 5975 m altitude we could expect to reach the summit ridge soon. A long drag up the continuing couloir led to a big spike anchor. With security we all felt better, even though the hours were fast slipping. A bulge in the couloir debouched into a mass of powder and loose stones. I backed off and headed up left on crumbled shales. The rope ran out without a belay, and the others started climbing. As Mike and Gordon tackled the tricky moves under the bulge, we were completely unprotected and I was frantically straining on the leash to reach a rounded outcrop where I could hitch the rope. They emerged looking drawn. We now had 6070 m on the GPS altimeter and still there was no sign of the ridge. I pushed on for another 50 m to a niche where I fabricated another good belay. The time was already past 2 p.m. I ploughed on with a prayer that our torments would soon be ended.
The end came with sudden revelation. I edged on to a mantelshelf of solid pale rock to meet a simple ice slope five m under the crest. The balcony was only half a metre wide but was the first piece of level ground we’d encountered since starting the ramp. I placed an ice screw belay, removed my sack and slumped on the ledge. With profound relief Mike and Gordon clambered up to my perch. We would happily have bivouacked where we stood.
The views were stupendous. The unclimbed Sela range of peaks now opened to our south, with the saddle-shaped summit of 7100 m Api and a host of Nepalese giants behind. A cloud-sea covered the Indian valleys and plains, broken by a random scattering of thunderhead clouds that rose to prodigious heights. Our altitude was 6160 m. ‘One crowded hour of glorious life’ passed to the accompaniment of a glorious brew of tea.
Sunset view across Nama glacier to Peak 6196 m with api and Nepal peaks behind from Cheepaydang summit camp
Holy Mount Kailash and Sangthang at sunset
Refreshed, we climbed to the crest to meet the stomach-churning plunge of Cheepaydang’s north wall, and traversed delicately to a generous levelling where we could pitch our tent, exactly at the shoulder that I had spied through binoculars 36 hours earlier. I dug a shallow grave for my bivouac close by, to which the others might minister a succession of drinks and snacks. Rarely is a camp sited so close to a summit and in so lofty a position. I watched the alpenglow die on Holy Mount Kailash, which floated 70 miles to our north, before snuggling down for the night.
The distance to Cheepaydang’s summit was no more than 250 m and we allowed ourselves a lie-in before tackling the crowning ridge. With the weather in immaculate mood there was no rush; we could savour every twist and turn. A steeper ridge of solid brown rock and a short curling arête took us to the top at 11.30 a.m. Even the top was accommodating, a triangular plinth three m across which permitted a prolonged picnic. The summit height was 6220 m. Only Brammah Parvat – a couple of km to our north – was higher in the Adi Kailash massif. We were relieved to confirm that both Cheepaydang’s northeast and southwest summits were lower than our central top. We collected specimens of quartz-rich rocks which had been brave enough to resist the pull of Himalayan gravity. Down below we could trace the labours of the past ten days, down the Nama glacier, through the little gorge to base camp, and out to the fields of Kuthi village 2400 m below. We had done it! Our every judgement and guess had borne fruit. What a wonderful feeling!
Brammah Parbat (6321m) - highest of adi kailash range and unclimbed - viewed from Cheepaydang
Unclimbed peak in Sela range glimpsed from kuthi valley above Nabi village
On return to the tent I scouted the top of the main gully and hacked out a secure anchor for Gordon’s four metre sling on a lump of purple marl. We brewed and dozed through the enervating afternoon hours until the sun set and a full moon rose in the east. We hitched our two 60 metre ropes to the anchor and abseiled into the darkness.
After four abseils Gordon reported the complete disintegration of his crampon and thereafter proceeded by hopping. We found ourselves trapped by the avalanche runnels and were twice forced to cross the icy chutes, but at midnight staggered round the final bergschrund and regained our campsite on the little glacier.
Energies remained sufficient just to put up the tents and bundle our bodies inside, where we could sleep the sleep of the just till dawn’s call. We had taken our chance and ridden our luck. Life is not always thus, but as Edmund Hillary once said “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
First ascent of Cheepaydang (the Peacock Mountain) 6220 m in the Adi Kailash range of Eastern Kumaun, India; Alpine Difficile standard with mixed climbing to Scottish grade IV standard. Martin Moran, Mike Page and Gordon Scott completed the climb from 2 to 5 October 2014.
While this group climbed Cheepaydang, Steve Kennedy and Des Rubens with support from Andy Nisbet and Sherpas Rinchung and Thukpa, ascended the north tributary of the Nama glacier which was barred by a difficult icefall. They climbed a peak of c. 5850 m on the south side of the col at the glacier head – Alpine Assez Difficile standard. They named the peak Konkordia Parvat and suggest the name Jasuli glacier for the north Nama tributary in memory of a famous female benefactor of the Darma valley from the 18-19th Century.
Other members of the expedition visited the Nama pass, and reconnoitred a line on a rock rib to 5800 m on the north flanks of P. 6196 m on the south side of the Nama cirque.
Adi Kailash Range: Geography and Historical Notes: (by Raj Kumar and Martin Moran)
The Adi Kailash massif has a north-northwest to south-southeast axis 40 km in length, running from the Tibetan border at the Darma pass (or Nuwe dhura, 5645 m) to a prominent pyramidal peak (known as Yirjenajung or Chaudans peak, 6178 m), which stands on the divide between the Kali ganga and Darma ganga valleys . The range is bounded to the northeast by the Kuthi Yankti valley, to the west by the Darma (or Dhauli ganga) and to the southeast by the Kali Ganga, which defines the border between India and Nepal. The upper Kali and Kuthi and their tributary valleys on both sides of the border are collectively known as Byās1 and the lower Kali valley is called Chaudas2. There are two high level glacial passes, with traditional usage, crossing the range between the Kuthi and Darma valleys, the Shin la (5300 m) between Jolingkong and Bidang campgrounds and the Nama pass (5200 m) between Kuthi and Sela villages.
The range contains nine mountains over 6000 m in altitude. Adi Kailash is 5950 m in height, and only summit in the range of popular renown. Its striking symmetrical profile bears a marked resemblance to Holy Mount Kailash in Tibet (which lies 100 km to the north), and the peak is closely entwined with the Hindu mythology. Adi Kailash means ‘First’ or ‘Old’ Kailash, and is alternatively called Chota (Little) Kailash or Baba (Baby) Kailash. After Kumaun came under British dominion in 1815 explorers and scientists sporadically visited the range and traversed its passes, but no serious mountaineering activity was recorded until the last 20 years. Apart from Adi Kailash, few of the other mountains were named, except by local folk, and maps were lacking in detail.
Religious History: The geography of the area has become steeped in Hindu mythological lore. These legends are recounted in detail by the local people. The historic pilgrim route to Manasarovar and Holy Mount Kailash runs up the Kali Ganga on the southeast side of the massif and over the pass of Lipu Lekh. Every year over one thousand Indian Hindu pilgrims take this path on a Government-organised Yatra to trek over the pass into Tibet in order to visit Holy Mount Kailash.
The highest village of the Byās valleys is Kuthi (3850 m), named after kutia (a hut), where the saint Vyas reputedly stayed while writing up the Mahabharata. An old fort of Tibetan style stands on a plug of rock outside the village, reputedly occupied by the Pandavas, and the present-day ruins date back at least 500 years.
Legend has it that Adi Kailash was visited by Lord Shiva with his first wife Sati. All the other devtas (gods), including Sati’s father Lord Daksh, were to hold a grand puja at Jolingkong but did not invite Shiva. Angry at this snub, Sati went instead and sacrificed her life by throwing herself on to the flames of the puja fire. Shiva returned to Adi Kailash with his second wife, Parvati, who was the reincarnation of Sati. He killed Lord Daksh and took Parvati over to Tibet to make a new home on Holy Mount Kailash. This explains the designation Adi (Original) Kailash.
By Jolingkong there is a lake, named Parvati tal. The tableau of the snow-tooth of Adi Kailash and placid waters of Parvati tal make a distinctive and inspiring landscape. A stone-pitched path with regular distance markers has been constructed up the Kuthi Yankti valley to Jolingkong, and there is a temple on the lake shore. Every year hundreds of pilgrims visit this sacred site. There is no evidence of any pilgrim route to Adi Kailash before the mid-19th century.
People and Culture: Over centuries the Darma, Byās and Chaudas valleys were populated by waves of migrants from the Indian plains and Tibetan highlands, resulting in a distinct and interesting ethnic mix. Collectively known to outsiders as Bhotias, they are Hindu in origin but observe Buddhist and Animist customs. They call themselves Rungpa. Many of the local place-names are derived from the local Rung language. Each valley has its own dialect of Rung which is a Tibeto-Burman language. The proximity of Tibet has a predominant influence on the culture and lifestyle. The Tibetan Raja maintained a claim to control the Byās through to the end of the 19th C, and it was the British who decisively demarcated present political boundaries between India and Nepal and Tibet in this region. Dispute over the border lines has persisted through to modern times.
The higher villages of the Kuthi Yankti and Darma Ganga are only inhabited in the summer months and become snow-bound in winter when the natives inhabit their low altitude villages near Dharchula. They return in spring to cultivate high altitude buckwheat crops such as Palthi (Latin. Fagopyrum Esculentum) and Phaphar (Latin. Fagopyrum Esculentum). They take their livestock to the higher pastures and in spring they collect Yartsa Gambu caterpillar fungus which is highly valued in traditional medicine. Bhotia women are highly skilful in weaving and knitting. The carpets and shawls have Tibetan motifs and their heavy woollen blankets, called Chutka, are much sought in the local market.
In former times there was a flourishing trade in Pashmina wool, grain, borax, goats and salt with Tibet. Hardy Bhotia businessmen took their goods over high passes (Lowe Dhura and Nuwe Dhura in Darma valley; Lipu Lekh, Lampiya Dhura and Mangsha Dhura in Byas valley) to the Tibetan trade marts at Taklakot (Purang ) and Gyanima. After the 1962 Indian-Chinese conflict border crossings were prohibited. In recent decades the local people have been allowed to re-establish a limited trade through the Lipu Lekh.
Western Explorers and Geologists: Exploration of the area by Westerners commenced soon after the Kumaun region was annexed by the British in 1815. William Webb, the first British surveyor, mapped the range in 1817. Captain Henry Strachey followed the Kali Ganga to make a crossing to Manasarovar in 1846 and published a rough map of the massif which named the peak of Yirjenajung. The three Schlagintweit brothers passed through the Byās valleys in their extensive surveying mission of 1854-58, and identified the Chaudans peak. Edwin Atkinson’s Himalayan Gazetteer of 1882-86 collates previous geographical references to the area. Arnold Henry Savage Landor’s journey in 1897, as recounted in his book ‘In the Forbidden Land’, is perhaps the most dramatic of the 19th century explorations. He quotes the heights of the main peaks of the Adi Kailash range and spent considerable time recording life and custom in the Chaudas and Byās valleys, before his illegal and ill-fated foray into Tibet, where he was captured and - according to his account - tortured to within an inch of his life.
Carl Griesbach gave the first geological commentary on the range in Vol XXIII of his survey of the Himalaya in 1891. The Swiss geologists Augusto Gansser and Arnold Heim made more detailed study in their 1936 explorations, which they recounted in ‘The Throne of the Gods’. Heim visited the Nama pass (which he called the Shiala pass) and they crossed the Shin la (then called the Lebong pass) on their outward journey.
Mountaineering History: Few mountaineers passed through the area prior to the fall of the security curtain in 1962. Bill Murray and his Scottish Himalayan expedition trekked down the Darma valley in 1950 but focused their efforts on the Panch Chuli range to the west. After 1962 exploration virtually ceased, although the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and Army were active in patrolling the area, crossing the Nama and Shin la, and undertaking some mountaineering. Sangthang (6480 m), the fine peak on the Tibetan border above Kuthi was ascended in 1968 by a team from West Bengal. The ITBP are thought to have made the first ascent of 5750 m Pandav Parvat above Kuthi and reputedly made an attempt on Adi Kailash itself. In 1982 Indian mountain explorer Harish Kapadia and friends trekked up the Darma valley, over the Shin la and down the Kuthi valley.
Since 2000 Martin Moran has mounted three pioneering expeditions to the area. In 2002 his party climbed a 5900 m snow peak five km north of Adi Kailash, which was named Rajula (the Princess) after a local Bhotia rani of historic legend, and attempted the north face of Adi Kailash, being stopped 150 m from the top by smooth slabby rocks. In 2004, his team, led by Andy Perkins and Martin Welch found an easier way up the southwest flank of Adi Kailash and climbed to within 15 m of the summit, leaving the final metres undefiled in respect to the mountain’s sacred status. In 2006 Moran led a team up the higher parent peak behind Adi Kailash, estimated at 6120 m in altitude and named Ishan Parvat in honour of Lord Shiva. By 2014 no other 6000er in the range was known to have been climbed.