The much awaited permission to attempt peak Shahi Kangri (6934 m) finally arrived! This high and unclimbed peak is located at the Depsang plains, a highly restricted area. We flew to Leh on 17 July 2015 with great anticipation. However fate had something else in store for us.
As we were flying towards Leh, ominous clouds covered the entire Himalayan belt. While we were landing, the clouds lifted and the sight of snow covered landscape, though very pretty, alarmed me. This was too much snow for July in Ladakh!
My fears were confirmed by the army officials and our friends at Leh. This year the snow melt had just started and the water bodies were in spate. There was news of bridges being swept away. Trekkers and local villagers were getting stranded due to washed off routes.
Since our attempt on Shahi Kangri involved our negotiating a narrow nala for almost 14 km, we reluctantly shelved the idea of attempting Shahi Kangri.
We quickly came up with an alternative plan based on a brief session with Google Earth. The army officials were most co-operative and we were given the green signal to change plans.
The Shyok valley has been closed to trekkers and mountaineers since the last four decades due to its proximity to the borders and Line of Control with China. Also, the Shyok river is in spate in the summer months (July – September) and it has not been possible to venture into the valley during these months. Recently the Border Roads Organisation has made necessary infrastructural arrangements to enable the road to be used even in the summer months.
Therefore till the summer of this year, the Shyok valley did not see any climbing / trekking activity in the southern regions. All earlier expeditions in summer would approach the Shyok valley by crossing the Saser la from the Nubra valley. Even then, most of the valley remained cut off due to the Shyok river blocking the access road in several places. The entire region south of Mandalthang, along the Shyok river, remained unexplored by mountaineers till the summer of 2015.
No trekking or mountaineering expedition had entered the Ryong Kharu Lungpa. Even the local villagers (from Shyok village) had stopped grazing their cattle in the Ryong Kharu Lungpa since many decades.
We therefore had no information of the Ryong Kharu Lungpa before we explored the valley ourselves – it was indeed a rare opportunity to explore the Ryong Kharu Lungpa and the Sagtogpa glacier without any prior information.
Leh to road head
With assistance from the Border Roads Organisation, our team of six drove from Leh to Shyok village via Chang la and Darbuk. On 23 July, we were at Mundro, located about 100 km from Darbuk, on the road from Shyok village to Murgo running along the Shyok river in the Eastern Karakoram mountains.
En route we visited the Tarsing Karmo gompa, build under huge boulders. The gompa symbolizes the sacred Tarsing Karmo mountain in the valley.
Exploring various alternatives
We were now playing blind. We camped next to the road and set out the next day – three teams in different valleys to check out the possibility of where we could safely head for a month of climbing. Of the three options available to us, we chose Ryong Kharu Lungpa to explore. The valley was very beautiful, safe from objective hazards and did not require us to cross any swollen rivers.
Trek to base camp
The route to the base camp was along the left of the river. After a steady climb of about 200 m along the side of the valley, the route descended to the river bed. We then skirted along the river for about 5 km to the camp site. It took us three days to establish base camp at 4665 m.
Area sketch map
Advance base camp
Another four-hour trek and advance base camp was located at 5070 m on the junction of the various branches of Sagtogpa glacier that formed the catchment area for Ryong Kharu valley.
Just above our ABC was the entrance to the first (eastern) subsidiary of Sagtogpa glacier that was closest to us. We decided to attempt P. 6195 m at the head of this subsidiary glacier. A few days were spent in acclimatizing and locating the route to Camp 1 on the glacier.
Peak 6195 m
The route from ABC climbed 500 m up steep slopes of terminal moraine before it eased along the lateral moraine of the glacier. We traversed another kilometre of loose rocks and scree, gaining additional 200 m to Camp 1.
The weather remained disturbed. Clouds, snowfall and some rain too kept us on tenterhooks. But we were fortunate and did not loose more than a few days.
On 6 August, we finally established Camp 1 at 5765 m. After recceing the route on the 7th, our team set off for the summit on 8 August at 6:00 a.m. The initial route was on the gradually ascending glacier. We then traversed to the other (western) side of the glacier to the base of the south ridge. A steady snow climb of easy gradient followed by a rope length of 60 degree snow and ice brought us on top of the south ridge leading to the summit. An hour’s climb along the ridge brought us to the summit by 11:00 a.m.
We were fortunate to get excellent views from the summit. This enabled us to study the peaks and glaciers around and decide on our next objective. The adjoining subsidiary Glacier 2 (central) was not of much interest, but Glacier 3 (western), a little further had a host of interesting peaks.
Peak 6195 m
We wound up camp and were at ABC the next day. After some celebrations and much needed rest, we started preparation for the next objective, P 6305 m at the head of Glacier 3, the main branch of Sagtogpa glacier.
Two of our members, Nikunj and Kushala had to leave the expedition due to work commitments. The balance four of us were rearing to go and were focused on our next objective.
Advance Base Camp 2 (Paradise Camp)
The route to the snout of Glacier 3 involved traversing a lush green ridge that took us gently all the way to ABC 2 (5270 m), which we termed as ‘Paradise Camp’. The camp was along a stream with beds of flowers all along. Coupled with grand views of the peaks around, the camp literally put us in ‘paradise’!
From this camp, a few kilometres of moraine and boulders led us to the snout of the glacier. We crossed onto the glacier and climbed gently towards our peak in the north. Since the distance to the base of the peak was long, we had to put an intermediate camp at 5500 m on 15 August.
Sagtogpa Kangri (6305 m)
A day of snowfall kept us back, but on 17 August we were at the base of our peak. We established our summit camp at 5860 m on the western slopes of the peak. After another day of bad weather, on 19 August, starting for the summit by 6:00 a.m. we initially traversed to the northern ridge, only to find that the ridge cumulates into steep rock towers. We skirted the summit pyramid from the western side at its base till we found a snow and ice gully leading to the south ridge. A 70 m climb at 50 degrees angle led us to the top of the south ridge. We roped up and climbed the rest of the route to the summit by 11:30 a.m.
Peak Sagtogpa Kangri (6305 m) from the summit of Peak 6195 m
Peak 6750 m from the summit of Peak 6195
Panorama from Summit of Sagtogpa Kangri
The day was exceptionally clear without even a wisp of cloud in the horizon. We were rewarded with views all the way from Stok Kangri in the west to Saser Kangri massif in the north. Many unnamed and unclimbed peaks cluttered the eastern and southern horizons with a few known ones. We were excited to identify most of the peaks in view, many of which we had climbed, since we had explored the area over the last 17 years. We named our peak ‘Sagtogpa Kangri’ since it is the most prominent peak of the Sagtogpa glacier.
First crossing of Sagtogpa col (5915 m)
We now spotted a possible route to cross into the Rongdo valley that could link up with the Nubra valley on our west. The prospect of finding a new route into the Rongdo excited us more than climbing another peak in the area so Rajesh Gadgil and I visited to check the high pass, which we named as Sagtogpa col (5915 m), leading to the Rongdo.
The crossing of the pass looked easy but the exit towards Rongdo was not visible. It could well be a steep drop or an icefall or a rock face. We could not judge without actually attempting the crossing. We decided to go for it.
Six of us with three days of rations and minimum gear decided to make an attempt the next day. We were supported by the rest of our team for the initial section of the descent. In case the route proved dangerous or not negotiable, they could have helped us to retrace our steps.
On 20 August, as we walked down the glacier after crossing the pass, we were greeted by a gentle glacier going down towards Rongdo. Our support team returned from that point and the six of us continued down the glacier towards the lush green Rongdo valley.
The Rongdo Valley
That evening, we camped at 5135 m, along some high altitude lakes. It took us another two days to exit at Rongdo village. To our horror, we discovered that a devastating cloudburst in Nubra valley had broken the path to Rongdo in several places requiring us to use our climbing skills to negotiate the route. The sting in the tail was the 10 km walk to Tsati village since the road between Tsati and Rongdo was also broken at many places.
Sagtogpa Col 5915 m from summit camp of Sagtogpa Kangri
What started as a disappointment of not attempting Shahi Kangri turned to be a blessing in disguise. The weather did not affect us as badly though it had devastated the rest of region. We had the privilege to explore one of the most beautiful valleys - a paradise indeed.
A six-member team from The Himalayan Club explored the Ryong Kharu Lungpa in the Eastern Karakoram in July – August 2015.
Peaks climbed : (Both were first ascents)
Passes visited / crossed :
Rajesh Gadgil, Vineeta Muni, Sagar Shinde, Pemba Sherpa, Pradeep Singh and Divyesh Muni made the first crossing of Sagtogpa Col (5915 m) into the Rongdo valley to exit at Rongdo village in Nubra valley.
Members: Rajesh Gadgil, Vineeta Muni, Sagar Shinde, Nikunj Vora, Kushala Vora and Divyesh Muni (leader).
Divyesh is a Chartered Accountant by profession and one of India’s finest climbers by passion. In the last 34 years of active climbing, he has climbed 32 Himalayan peaks, 20 of them being first ascents. Some of his noted climbs are : First ascent of Chamshen (7071 m.), New route on Chong Kumdan I (7071 m)), first ascent of Rangrik Rang (6656 m), Bhujang (6560 m), Sujtilla -West (6273 m) etc. He is passionate about exploring and seeks out new areas to climb. In the recent years, he has concentrated on climbing in East Karakoram region.