Dream lines don’t come much better than the northeast ridge of Nanda Devi East.
In 2009 I was given a full display of this beautiful route in the view from the summit of a nearby subsidiary, Nanda Lapak. The northeast ridge starts at the lowly height of 5331 m and climbs through pristine glacial terrain to gain a sinuous upper arête. A couple of séracs near the 7434 m summit posed potential hazards to the outcome, but they looked stable and avoidable. Sporting a 2000 m vertical sweep of virgin snow and ice on one of the world’s greatest mountains, this was an inspirational line.
Every other party attempting Nanda Devi East has taken the 1939 Polish route and nearly all have employed siege tactics. The lack of attention to this obvious alternative was inexplicable. In 1994 the late Roger Payne and Julie-Ann Clyma had investigated the ridge from the Pachu valley to the north but were unable to find any safe way to gain the crest in dry post-monsoon conditions. From Nanda Lapak I spotted a much easier route to gain the starting col from the Lwan valley. The only questions were whether I could ever make the time to have a go, and whether I’d still have the strength to deliver a performance worthy of the peak.
Nanda Devi East NE ridge - photo-diagram of route
My chance came in 2015, my 61st year. A guiding colleague from Wales, Mark Thomas, was super-keen to have a go. Mark was 20 years my junior and a former ultra-triathlete. He had built a formidable climbing pedigree without ever courting publicity, and was a man on whom I could totally rely. His friend from Chamonix, Tom Coney, joined the force and then we received a request from two 8000 m masters, Kenton Cool, the 11-time UK Everester, and Dave Morton, an American with a similar tally of guided 8000 m success. On such a big route a bigger team had its appeal. There would be much trail-breaking to do!
Our team arrived in Munsiari on 11 September. With addition of Liaison Officer Digu, our ever-cheerful cook and Sirdar, Naveen Chandra, and Darjeeling-based Sherpa Phurtemba, plus 32 local porters we bent our backs to the four-day trek to base camp. The low-level route round the valley loop by Rupsia Bagar had been destroyed by the 2013 flash-flood. In its place we were subjected to a 1000 m uphill grind over 2700 m Minsing Top on a stone-flagged staircase of ingenious design. The trail then dropped back into the valley and we followed familiar landmarks for 25 km to the ruinous village of Martoli. A glimpse up the Lwan side-valley revealed the bounding ridges in a similar state of denudation. The monsoon had failed, leaving acres of rubble and slabs where snowfields and ice gullies were to be expected.
Nonetheless, the dawn view of the soaring southeast ridge of Nanda East was every bit as stunning as I remembered from 2009. We emerged from the lower depths of the Lwan gorge into the vast glacial fields and alluvial flats of the upper cirque. We put base camp on the north side of the river close to Bhital Gwar shepherds’ huts at 4275 m.
The team was brim-full of energy and on our first morning we climbed 1000 m straight up from base without a pause in a gut-busting effort. I feared for my pride as I struggled up 20 minutes behind the rest.
Nanda Devi East from base camp - NE ridge on right
Kenton’s fused-ankles give him trouble on loose ground, so I had a partner in sight for the two km traverse towards the starting col. We spread out across several alternative lines but quickly established the most efficient passage, which was technically straightforward apart from a couple of vertiginous scree-slopes. Half a kilometre before the col a level rock promontory offered a site for our advanced camp.
In the following days our plans unravelled. On close inspection the lower ridge was icier than under the pre-monsoon blanket that I had witnessed in 2009. The intermediate waves of ice cliffs were a little more pronounced and the summit séracs had certainly grown a little. Dave and Kenton’s commitment visibly wavered. After doing two high-speed carries and spending one night at our advance camp Tom was suddenly stricken by sinus trouble. Further gain in altitude would only exacerbate what was a chronic problem so he withdrew from the attempt. On top of all this it began to snow.
On 20 September Mark and I set off from advance base to get acclimatized and reconnoitre the route up the lower ridge. We traversed to the starting col on the brink of a spectacular downfall on the Pachu side. With a firm crust of frozen snow the initial ridge was a pleasant stroll. The ground steepened at 5600 m to a pronounced rock tower, formed of rotten shales which dipped at a 30° angle and were devoid of meaningful protection. We crept up in three short pitches, our crampons scraping alarmingly on the slabs, until I found a solid seam and hammered in two good pitons.
Climbing the lower snow arête at 5950 m
The onward ridge traversed horizontally for 70 m then climbed a 100 m
riser of 55° angle. We pitched the whole way, finding solid ice for belays a few inches beneath the crust. The angle then eased to a rimaye at the base of a soaring arête at 5850 m. The rimaye provided a perfect tent perch and we hoped that any debris falling from above would be diverted to one or the other side of the crest. Our tent was a single-skin hermit’s cell, but with the addition of a zip-in porch attachment the interior was suitably snug. As we pulled off our boots a steady snowfall commenced and this continued late into the night.
After digging out the tent at midnight we slept well and woke to a brilliant dawn. The volume of fresh snow was considerable, but we guessed that the arête would have shed much of its load in sloughs and slides. We left the tent in place and set off at 7:40 a.m. The arête was steeper than anticipated, rising in a razor-edge at 55 to 60°angle. The exposures on both sides were dramatic, the climbing arduous and a barrier of ice cliffs barred the exit from the ridge. After running out six full rope-lengths of 60 m each we arrived at the barrier at midday. Colonnades of icicles deterred a full-frontal assault. Mark led diagonally rightwards for 30 m and found a gangway running up through the cliff to gain a groove. This was my lead and I nearly gasped my last hauling over an overhang. The ice became rotten as I reached easier ground, and I spent half-an-hour probing and then excavating a bollard.
Our altitude was 6110 m. Above us, the line weaved in and out of an assortment of ice walls, but at an easier angle. The initial task was complete. We reinforced the bollard with a snow stake and abseiled gingerly back down the cliff. Back at base camp Dave and Kenton discussed their doubts and finally made an emotional declaration that they had decided not to join us on the climb.
So now we were two! Mark and I exchanged knowing looks. If these guys, vastly experienced in the high Himalayan arts, weren’t happy about the route, why on earth were we going on it? We felt briefly lonely, but decided to trust our intuitions and go back for a crucial attempt, just two climbers, with no support, following the alpine style. Strangely, I felt comforted once we had decided to commit. The stakes were high but the strategy was simple. This was a chance to live the dream.
Mark leading towards the ice barrier at 6100 m
The lower part of the route from 5400 to 6600 m
Mark follows the traverse under the ice cliffs at dawn on day 4
Exit from the labyrinth on day 5
Mark climbs on to easier slopes at 6200 m - Traill’s Pass behind
On the 25th we returned to the ridge. Our passage up the rock step was much facilitated by a covering of frozen snow. We reached the rimaye camp at 5850 m at 9.40 a.m., rested the day and set the alarms for 1:00 a.m. The best way to avoid enervation on the arête and ice cliff was to climb at night. Meanwhile, the news came from base camp that Kenton’s father was terminally ill back in the UK. Rather than attempting a Changuch-Nanda Kot traverse as hoped, both he and Dave were departing for home. Not only were we two, we were now the only two climbers in the whole of the range.
The night climb went well despite our 18 kg loads. The sun rose as we tackled the ice cliff. I made a crazy mistake trying the lead a more direct line with my load, and wasted the best of my energy ration thrashing around in honeycombed ice then retreating. At the same time a high-velocity volley of ice lumps flew over the cliff. Whether this was random fire or a warning shot before more serious bombardment was irrelevant. We completed the cliff ascent with a sense of urgency.
We climbed beyond our high point into knee-deep snow on a projecting spur. After 60 m of this my strength gave out. There was a significant ice cliff above and a wind-slab fracture line in the snow to our left. Mark ploughed out rightwards to a promontory that appeared less threatened. As we dug out a platform the daily dose of snowfall commenced and the blizzard continued all afternoon.
Martin at top camp - the high point was the large meringue of snow top right
Martin at the high point with the summit behind
Nanda Devi East and Main summits from the NE Ridge
Preparing to start the descent from top camp at nightfall - Nanda Kot behind
At 2:00 a.m. we were still shrouded in fog and the tent was smothered in fresh snow. We waited until dawn before we dared to leave. As the skies cleared we packed with an efficiency that bordered on panic. I led off and we moved together a full 60 m rope-length apart, placing ice screws every 20 m. Conditions were wildly atmospheric, the ice-cliff gleaming with a greenish hue and powder slides tumbling over its lip and down every runnel. With a smart zig-zag I found a way through without encountering any vertical sections.
Mark led a block of three pitches up the left side of the cliff and up another 60° wall to end on a level balustrade at the lower edge of a belt of crevasses, séracs and glacial implosions worthy of the term labyrinth. Great black holes loomed out of the gathering fog. We found our way through a trough and up a ramp on its far side, only to become stranded in ‘pea-soup’ unable to see which way to go. Though it was only midday we had no choice but to set camp, our altitude 6425 m. The white-out reigned all afternoon, punctuated regularly by showers of hail. At this rate we’d never get up the mountain.
Once again, the skies cleared towards dawn. We dusted ourselves down and stuffed the frozen tent away. Were we in a cul-de-sac? I ploughed under an ice wall and found escape down a narrow channel which dropped into a big gully. Here the snow was deep and unstable but at every stage we had the comfort of at least one ice screw belay. Mark got us out of the gully with some powerful climbing and to our delight we merged from the labyrinth on open slopes just 40° in angle.
After three long pitches of low-angled wading under the beating sun I was drained of all energy. We climbed into the lee of a huge ice wall that was banded with a hundred years of annual snow accumulations. Mark dragged the ropes out one more pitch, his crampons balling up with great clods of moist snow. The upper crest of the northeast ridge was directly above us, a series of giant ice meringues supported by ranks of sculpted snow-flutes. We would have liked to climb further to escape their threat but the clouds were massing and we stood on a precious bit of level ground, so up went the tent for the fourth night.
Another 15 cm of snow fell, but the news on our radio-link was good. The weather report promised unbroken good weather for five days. We were less than 800 m from the top and profoundly dispirited by lugging big loads, so this was the time to cut loose and go light. We were up at 3:00 a.m. on the 29th, and packed two nights’ food and fuel, plus sleeping bags and a shovel. There were two possible lines. A direct route up a big couloir left of the fluted ridge was discounted as too dangerous with the current build-up of snow. The alternative was to get out right above the banded ice wall and gain the ridge much lower down. This would give us the best part of a kilometre to traverse to gain the final turret of the mountain.
The first 100 m were steep and deplorable. Deep unconsolidated snow was augmented by regular sloughs from above. We felt distinctly relieved to traverse to a level plateau, safe from being engulfed. The ridge was close above, just 60 m up a 55° rib, and I set to with a will, knowing that with arrival I would view the whole northern basin of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary for the first time. The revelation was spectacular. Rarely have I felt so inspired and happy as I scanned the Sanctuary skyline – Changabang, Kalanka, Kamet behind, then out to Tibet, to Holy Mount Kailash and Gurla Mandhata. To my left the ice-plated north wall of Nanda East plunged 2000 m to the North Nanda Devi glacier. We were the first to see all this at close quarter.
Mark joined my revelry. After the days of toil and freed of the burden of full loads we felt empowered. We snacked and then he led on, ploughing a deep trench up the ridge. If the crest continued like this we could make it – one bivouac then the summit. There was one section that we couldn’t see, the piece of ridge above the meringues. We clambered on to the first and biggest meringue where the onward arête was laid out in full. For half a kilometre the Sanctuary flank formed a series of spectacular flutes of bottomless powder-snow at 65 or even 70° angle. The Lwan flank overhung throughout. At once we knew we were beaten. We couldn’t contemplate climbing up that terrain still less think of descending it two days later. In half-a-minute we were transformed from elation to defeat, and suffered the added rub of irony that this was the first cloudless day of the climb. At least the decision was unequivocal. The high point was noted as 6865 m.
The Panch Chuli massif viewed at sunset during the descent
Back at camp we baked in the afternoon sun. Knowing that I’d never be here again, I ventured the suggestion that with two days of sun the alternative line up the couloir might possibly crust over and be safe to climb by night. Mark felt that the risk wasn’t justified, for, apart from the avalanche danger, we’d be climbing directly under the summit sérac. His reasoning probably saved my life. The descent of the ridge involved 1300 m of down-climbing and 13 abseils off ice-threads and bollards. In the event it took every ounce of my energy and concentration.
Sometime after 3:30 a.m. on 1 October I pitched back into our advance camp. Mark already had the stove on and was brewing some hot Tang. My relief and happiness to be safe were tinged with a particular sadness. Unless my body is possessed of some remarkable regenerative power, this was possibly my last descent from a really big Himalayan route. Release from endeavour would not be accompanied by the joy of victory. Whatever the hopes invested and the effort expended, life in the mountains is not ordered to any self-gratifying plan. It must suffice to have survived to tell the tale.
An alpine style attempt on Nanda Devi East. Martin and Mark reached a high point of 6865 m.
Martin Moran is one of Britain’s most experienced mountain guides and the author of several mountain books. He has achieved many ‘firsts’ in exploratory mountaineering and major mountain traverses, including the first and only completion of Scotland’s Munros within a single winter and in 1993 the first continuous traverse of the 4000 metre summits of the Alps (75 peaks in 52 days), a time as yet unsurpassed.
Martin has a special passion for the Indian Himalaya and has made 25 expeditions to the Uttarakhand, Himachal and Kashmir ranges – most of them as a mountain guide, and most with pioneering objectives. His first ascents include Nanda Kot South Face, Changuch, Nilkanth West Ridge and several peaks in the Adi Kailash range. His most recent venture was an attempt on the unclimbed NE Ridge of Nanda Devi East in September 2015. He also has a special liking for exciting unsupported crossings of high passes – most notably the Badrinath-Kedarnath route in 1998 and the Shalang-Poting traverse in 2015. Martin’s autobiography of his life as a professional guide, ‘Higher Ground’, was published in 2014.