Porters crossing a snowfield (Avilash Bisht)
Nya Kangri, unclimbed as yet, had been on our wish-list for many years. In fact, we had attempted it in 2008 when we were forced to retreat from the mountain due to heavy snowfall and avalanche prone conditions.
The challenge of exploration is to push your mind and body to go beyond what is known and done.
In July 2015 we were in Leh to attempt Shahi Kangri (6934 m). However the high water levels due to the peak summer snow melt dissuaded us and we postponed our attempt to May 2016. We hoped that we could gain safe access to the mountain well before the snow melt started. The mountain had not been attempted before so the route to the peak was unknown. Google Earth indicated an approach route along the Chip Chap nala from Chongtash camp on the old silk route to Karakoram pass.
Rajesh Gadgil, Ratnesh Javeri, Vineeta Muni, Roshmin Mehandru and I flew to Jammu on 1 May 2016. Our 10 member support staff joined us for the journey to Leh. Dinesh Korday, was with us on the 2nd, having driven 3000 kms from Gangtok. Our expedition was organized under the aegis of The Himalayan Club.
Roshmin Mehandru is a young city lad who had no prior exposure to the outdoors or the mountains. He accompanied us just to get a taste of what a Himalayan exploratory expedition involves.
We learnt that Leh markets were still not stocked for the season, so rations were purchased in Jammu itself. With a little over a ton of load packed into a pickup, our motorcade including three SUVs reached Leh on 5 May via Srinagar, Sonamarg, Kargil and Mulbek. Zojila had just opened, and its clear road running amid a wall of snow made the drive fascinating. Leh looked deserted.
The tourists were just starting to come; most shops and establishments were preparing for the season. We spent three days checking our equipment, acclimatizing and liaising with the Army. The Border Roads Organization (BRO) had kindly provided us transport since civil vehicles were not allowed in the Shyok valley.
On 9 May, we drove from Leh to Shyok village via Darbuk. En route, we crossed the Changla pass (5360 m). Snow levels were still high and temperatures were low. It was late evening when we reached the BRO post at Shyok, where we spent the night.
Dinesh Korday had returned from Leh and Roshmin bid us farewell at Darbuk since he did not have the necessary security clearance to accompany us further.
The following day it took us eight hours to cover a little over 150 kms to Murgo. Both sides of the valley were flanked by massive peaks. At Sultan Chusku we crossed the Shyok river. Although the river looks calm on the surface, the current is very strong. Many have perished trying to cross the Shyok, which gives it its name ‘Shi’ meaning death and ‘yok’ meaning river – ‘river of death’. It originates in the glaciers of the Rimo group of peaks. It was frightening but worth every moment to see the skill of our driver who took us across with more than half the height of the truck tyres submerged under water.
The Bottle Neck on the Chip Chap nala that stopped the expedition from further progress
We camped with the BRO at Murgo for three days awaiting final clearance from the local Army unit for us to proceed. The road-head camp was located a few hundred metres from the Chip Chap nala near Chongtash.
As soon as a road-head camp was located, we started recceing a route to base camp. Our first foray was along the Chip Chap nala. The route traversed on flat ground for a kilometre and then we had to descend to the Chip Chap nala on some very loose scree. We went along the nala for a few kilometres crossing the river at many places. We thought we had found a good route.
Then we came to a halt. The nala suddenly narrowed down to a few metres width with fast flowing ice-cold water touching both the edges. A six-inch thick sheet of ice covered the flowing river for half the width. The walls on both sides were vertical. The nala was narrow for the next 200 m. It was futile to push further through the water.
The following day, we attempted to climb high and find a way to pass the bottleneck. A 600 m climb brought us to a high pass overlooking the nala. The sight shook me up. The descent from the pass was steep over loose scree and gravel. This route was possible to negotiate once but not repeatedly, with heavy loads. We were still several kilometres from base camp. Shifting more than a ton of load across this terrain was not practical. We would have to find a different path.
We started off along the true left of the nala and traversed the slopes about 200 m above the riverbed. For the first two km the route gave us hope. Suddenly the slopes fell steeply into the nala just beyond the bottleneck. The drop was nearly 70 degrees with loose mud and rubble all the way down. We tried to find an alternative route for the next couple of hours with no luck. Unfortunately, the route was too loose and steep for us to plan shifting our loads to base camp (BC). Also, a little further we could see another bottle neck in the nala which seemed even more difficult to circumvent. And all this before we even touched BC!
After hours of discussion, we sadly decided to call off our attempt to reach Shahi Kangri. The snow had already begun to melt earlier than usual this year so the water level was rising. With 14 of us negotiating this daily for the next 15 to 20 kms, the risk was too high.
We had started to retreat even before our expedition had begun! But our quest for adventure was far from satisfied. We quickly pulled out our ’to do’ list of climbs and explorations in the East Karakoram and requested the Army to allow us to visit another unexplored section in the Shyok valley. Unfortunately, permission was denied. So, we pulled out plans for a peak that was now in an ‘open’ area. Nya Kangri, unclimbed as yet, had been on our wish-list for many years. In fact, we had attempted it in 2008 when we were forced to retreat from the mountain due to heavy snowfall and avalanche prone conditions.
We soon made our way to the Nubra valley after thanking the army personnel who had provided the best of support and hospitality.
The two-day journey gave us time to tune into a different objective and to overcome the disappointment of retreating from Shahi Kangri.
We spent two days in Tirit re-organizing our loads, and arranging for horses. Unfortunately, we got eight horses instead of 18 so the entire load was rationalized and divided for a second ferry.The approach trek started at the rock carved Buddha shrine near the Tirit monastery, climbing about 900 m before traversing the valley from its true left. The flash floods of 2015 had wreaked havoc on the path. The horses were having a difficult time, actually slipping from the path with their loads at a couple of places. It was a relief that they did not suffer any major injury but coaxing them along with loads involved a lot of effort. It was late evening by the time we reached Wasekhar (jungle camp). We had planned to reach base camp the following day but offloading the horses at various difficult locations had slowed us down. By evening we were still some distance away and unsure about whether we should cross the river at this junction or continue along the true left of the river and cross over near the base camp location. We decided to camp for the night and continue only after we had confirmed a safe route.
The approach trek started at the rock carved Buddha shrine near the Tirit monastery, climbing about 900 m before traversing the valley from its true left. The flash floods of 2015 had wreaked havoc on the path. The horses were having a difficult time, actually slipping from the path with their loads at a couple of places. It was a relief that they did not suffer any major injury but coaxing them along with loads involved a lot of effort. It was late evening by the time we reached Wasekhar (jungle camp). We had planned to reach base camp the following day but offloading the horses at various difficult locations had slowed us down. By evening we were still some distance away and unsure about whether we should cross the river at this junction or continue along the true left of the river and cross over near the base camp location. We decided to camp for the night and continue only after we had confirmed a safe route.
On 21 May, we finally established base camp at Phonglas (4630 m). It had been a difficult walk in and more than half our loads were still at the road head including salt and sugar! We would have to wait till the rest of our loads arrived. In the meantime, we established a route to advance base camp (ABC).
As soon as the balance loads arrived, we started ferrying to ABC. On 28 May, we shifted to ABC (5430 m), only to be greeted by snowfall at the camp. The following day, during a brief break in the snowfall, we ventured further up the glacier to get a glimpse of the route. We were happy to discover a possible route which we could negotiate.
Nya Kangri (6480 m)
The next day, we went for a full recce. The route to summit camp started along the glacier just above the ABC site. It was a steady climb until we reached a basin below the east ridge and southeast ridge of Nya Kangri. The southeast ridge route seemed to be safer. Initially the slopes were easy angled with a layer of snow cover. After the initial 200 m the route got steeper and the ice was exposed. A short section of rope was fixed just below the campsite due to the hard ice.
On 2 June, we moved to summit camp at 5965 m. A grand view welcomed us. We prepared for the summit push. Early next morning we started up the ridge which was initially steep, followed by a short traverse to overcome a bergschund. The angle eased a bit for the next 100 m and then we hit a section of steep blue ice. Crossing this took a long time and effort since our crampons and axes bounced off the hard ice. Another 100 m brought us to more steep blue ice. This led us to the rock outcrop that culminated at the final summit ridge. We were now about 200 m from the summit. It was 10:30 a.m. but a steady wind was blowing and it had started to snow. We realized that the next 200 m, with sections of steep blue ice, would take us considerable time to negotiate. Keeping the fast changing weather in mind, we decided to turn back for the day. We were confident that we would finish the climb once the weather had settled. We retraced our way to ABC, carrying only essentials.
Route of attempt on Nya Kangri (6480 m)
View from summit camp of Nya Kangri
Argan Kangri (on the right) and Abale peak (on the left) seen from the summit camp of Nya Kangri
We all moved down to base camp for rest and recuperation giving time for the weather to settle. After five days, on 7 June, we moved to ABC and were back at summit camp on the 8th.
We woke up at 2:00 a.m. on 9 June to the sound of a constant patter of snowfall on the tents. A peek outside was disheartening - the visibility was barely a few feet. Hoping the weather would settle, we decided to postpone the summit attempt by a day. The snowfall was intermittent during the day keeping us hopeful of a clear day. Unfortunately, the weather turned worse by late evening and it continued to snow heavily through the night. We had to keep clearing the tent at regular intervals. Our apprehension changed from “will we make it to the summit?” to “will we get down safely from the summit camp?” Fortunately, we got a short break in the snowfall. We quickly wound up camp and made our way down. By late afternoon we had wound up ABC and were at BC. We had reached so close to the summit that it seemed certain that we would get there. We had now run out of rations and fuel and our horses were expected in two days. We had no choice but to call off further attempts.
As I walked down from the mountain towards Nubra, I experienced mixed emotions. I felt cheated out of the joy and pleasure of standing on the summit of one of the most beautiful peaks in the area. I also experienced the satisfaction of giving all I had to the mountain. Our team had explored a safe and feasible route to climb Nya Kangri.
The weather we had experienced had paralyzed the Nubra valley for a few days. There was news that Khardung la was blocked and hundreds of vehicles were stranded due to the sudden and heavy snowfall. It was only after we returned to Leh on 14 June that the weather finally cleared.
We got over our disappointment and celebrated the adventurous 45 days we had experienced and started dreaming of ‘what next?’
This team initially planned to attempt of Shahi Kangri and then had to change their objective to the beautiful Nya Kangri – after opening a challenging route to the summit, bad weather forced them to retreat when making the final summit push. Rajesh Gadgil went back to the mountain a few months later to attempt the peak again as well as recover equipment but was pushed back again by the might of the weather gods.
DIVYESH MUNI 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. In 2017, the team plans to explore other areas of the Karakoram to commemorate 90 years of The Himalayan Club.
Derek R Buckle
We chose to call this peak Lak Kangri (Ladakhi for Raptor Snow Peak) on account of an unknown bird of prey that flew across the summit just as Gus and Mike were reaching the top, and graded it at Alpine AD.
For many years I have wanted to visit some of the more remote regions east of Ladakh’s Nubra valley, but my enthusiasm was always daunted by knowing that its proximity to both Pakistan and China adds another level of unpredictability when applying for climbing permits. Nevertheless, in 2016 our team of five European friends, comprising Mike Cocker, Drew Cook, Gus Morton, Knut Tønsberg and I decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and apply. The next question was which area to choose? A detailed search of the mountaineering literature alongside terrestrial maps and Google Earth satellite images eventually led us to settle on the Rassa glacier, which can be reached from the village of Tirit by way of a rough herders track following the Tirit valley. The Rassa glacier seemed to offer everything that we were looking for in an exploratory expedition, including numerous amenable, unclimbed 6000 m peaks.
Few climbing parties have visited the upper part of the Tirit valley, although the lower reaches have been used to access Nya Kangri (6480 m), an impressive pyramidal peak to the north of Phonglas. Despite several attempts, however, this mountain remains unclimbed. A joint Anglo-American-Indian party, co-led by Harish Kapadia and Chris Bonington in 2001, was the first mountaineering team to venture beyond the confluence of the Rassa and Phunangma glacial outflows, but their efforts focused on the peaks bordering the more southerly Phunangma glacier.2 It was not until 2014 that an Indian party, led by Divyesh Muni, who was a member of the 2001 multinational team, returned to explore the extensive Rassa glacier to the north of the confluence.3 It was his account, and subsequent private correspondence that eventually convinced us to focus on the virgin 6000 m peaks forming the northern boundary of the first glacial spur of this glacier (marked as Glacier 1 on their map). Peak 6315, which is just south of Tusuhm Kangri (6219 m), became our primary objective.
Drew on the summit of Lak Kangri. Nya Kangri behind
On arriving in Delhi on 26 August 2016 our first task was to visit the Indian Mountaineering Foundation where we met Tsewang Phuntsog, the Liaison Officer assigned to our expedition. The augmented team then flew to Leh, which at 3500 m is an ideal place to acclimatize. Two days later, after completing our final in-country arrangements and organizing Inner Line Permits for the Nubra valley, we made our way north to the East Karakoram. Leaving Leh we first crossed the popular Khardung la, which at 5370 m was, for some time, the world’s highest motor road, before descending to the Shyok river just south of the village of Tirit. Beyond Tirit we joined the Nubra valley which was followed to Sumur (3170 m) where we spent a further two days acclimatizing before relocating to the mountains proper. With these two spare days we took the opportunity to visit the 150-year-old Samstemling gompa, where we were delighted to meet the senior academic monk (a Geshe4) in charge of the monastic school there. Following a well-worn tourist trail we also visited the rather dilapidated Panamik hot springs, the sacred lake of Yarab Tso, and the Hunder sand dunes with its cohort of Bactrian camels.
Panorama of the Rassa glacier with Thrung-ma Kangri to the far right
By 31 August we felt ready to begin the three-day trek to our proposed base camp high in the Tirit valley. The trek starts at the Buddhist shrine near the head of the valley, which is where we joined our six-man support team and the horses that were to ferry our food and equipment to base camp. In order to avoid the lower gorge of the Tirit Phu5 the path initially crossed the 3945 m Chamba la before making a high traverse above the valley floor to skirt the numerous deep gullies cleaving the hillside. It later descended to a wooded camp site at Wasekar (4057 m) where we spent the night in what we affectionately called ‘Jungle Camp’. The next day we again climbed to an undulating track above the valley floor before finally descending to the river which we crossed to our second camp site at Phonglas (4640 m). On 2 September we continued to trek to our base camp which we located at 4756 m a little beyond Arganglas and close to the confluence of the Phunangma and Rassa glacial outflows.
It snowed quite heavily the night we arrived at base camp but, more seriously, Knut was beginning to show symptoms associated with the altitude. While the rest of the team were clearly going nowhere, Knut wisely decided to descend with Gus, Tsewang and one of the high altitude porters (HAPs) while we still had horses available, and eventually he took an early flight back to Norway. It was disappointing to see one of the team depart so early in the expedition, but we all recognized that this was infinitely preferable to the possibility of more serious complications developing.
When the sun eventually returned on 4 September our first priority was to establish an advance base camp (ABC) high in the valley from which we could develop higher camps in readiness for our assaults. Following an obvious animal track north from the camp led onto the complex terminal moraine of the Rassa glacier that subsequently degenerated into a mass of unstable mounds and deep troughs below the snouts of two divergent glaciers. Somewhat to our amazement, amongst the chaotic moraine we eventually located an idyllic oasis of sand adjacent to two clear glacial pools at 5100 m. Drew, Mike and I finally occupied this camp the next day with help from three of our HAPs.
Lak Kangri (foreground) and Nya Kangri (behind) from summit Thrung-ma Kangri
While the ground immediately above ABC was broken and awkward, it was soon agreed that this was the best route to glacier 1 since it led onto the more amenable medial moraine which then exited easily onto the glacier itself. Using this approach a suitable spot for Camp 1 was found on the glacier at 5585 m, although this camp was too low for any reasonable attempt on Pk 6315, or indeed any other of the unclimbed peaks nearby. As a result Camp 2 was placed somewhat higher at 5675 m. It was occupied by the three of us on 9 September, with Gus expecting to re-join the team the next day.
In addition to its proximity to Pk 6315, Camp 2 was ideally situated for other peaks on the ridge immediately to the north, and particularly Pk 6222. Deciding that this was too good an opportunity to miss, Drew and I set off early on 10 September to attempt the prominent snow-covered gully that cleaved its southeast face. Easily crossing to the true right of the glacier we soloed the 35-40° slope close to its left hand rock spur on a mixture of good quality snow and occasional ice patches to exit on a magnificent snow arête. Continuing to solo we then climbed this arête to reach the compact, corniced summit of Pk 6222 and make its first ascent. The views in all directions were simply stunning. To the southeast lies the 6560 m Meme, climbed in 2001 by members of the Kapadia-Bonington party2; to the northeast lie Tusuhm Kangri, climbed in 2004 by Divyesh Muni’s party3, and Pk 6315; to the west lies the unclimbed Nya Kangri; and to the north a plethora of hitherto unclimbed 6000 m peaks. In brilliant sunshine we spent a little time enjoying the view before descending the same way. We made one 30 m abseil to avoid an awkward ice patch to return to Camp 2 some 7.5 hours after leaving. Since Gus had now re-joined us, Mike and he made the second ascent of Pk 6222 via the same route the following day. We chose to call this peak Lak Kangri (Ladakhi for Raptor Snow Peak) on account of an unknown bird of prey that flew across the summit just as Gus and Mike were reaching the top, and graded it at Alpine AD.
It snowed significantly overnight and the weather remained unpromising when we awoke on the morning of 12 September. We therefore took the collective decision to return to base camp where we could at least recover our energy and enjoy the excellent food that Rose, our cook, was able to conjure up. In poor visibility and with slippery, snow covered moraine it was not a pleasant descent, however, and it was a relief when we eventually reached the animal track leading from the moraine back to camp. Continuing unsettled weather kept us at base camp for another two days during which we were constantly assailed by the cacophony of bell ringing from the half a dozen or so horses that grazed around camp. At night this could be a little tiresome, but at least it alerted us when they ventured closer to our tents than desirable. A horse had already virtually destroyed one of the base camp tents and we did not wish to lose another! Sadly it did not go all the horses own way and one morning we learnt that one had a broken foreleg, presumably as a result of stumbling over the uneven, boulder-strewn ground surrounding the camp. Tsering, one of our HAPs, did manage a professional looking splint, but with the coming onset of winter one does wonder whether it could survive at these altitudes if it failed to repair in time.
Route on S Face of Thrung-ma Kangri (Divyesh Muni)
By 17 September the weather had improved sufficiently to warrant a return to Camp 2 and to save time we did this in a single, strenuous push. It was now time to concentrate on Pk 6315, our primary objective. Our initial thoughts, developed from comfortable armchairs at home, were to approach the peak via its northwest face, but on closer inspection this no longer appeared attractive. Instead, a brief foray further up the glacier suggested that a direct route up the south face might be a better option. Leaving at first light on 19 September Drew, Gus, Mike and I ascended the crevassed glacier beyond the broad snow bowl leading to the col between Tusuhm Kangri and Pk 6315 until it was possible to make a rising traverse to a rocky ridge to the left of the second prominent snow couloir on the south face. Depositing our excess clothing at the foot of this ridge we then unroped to zigzag up the face until it visibly steepened before continuing to front-point close to the rocks on 40° slopes. As the slope narrowed we crossed to another rock ridge on the right where we roped up in pairs to cross the icy 45-50° slope to the main (first) snow couloir to our left. From here a further 200 m or so of steep snow/ice led to a sweeping, corniced arête and the first ascent of the narrow, airy summit of Pk 6315. As with Lak Kangri, the views from the summit were stupendous and particularly striking were those back towards Lak Kangri itself. After taking the obligatory summit photos we hastily retreated the way we had come by means of eight full-length 60 m abseils from a combination of ice screws and rock belays to arrive back at camp 12 hours after leaving. Since Pk 6315 commands a dominant position to the north of Glacier 1 we chose to call this peak Thrung-ma Kangri (Ladakhi for Protector Snow Peak as the nearest we could get to Sentinel peak).
At first we intended to remain at Camp 2 a little longer but the draw of base camp eventually eroded our desire to investigate further potential objectives. On 20 September we therefore carried all of our essential gear back to base camp in a single lift in the hope that we would now have a little time to explore the lower Phunangma valley before returning home. By some miraculous feat our HAPs managed to clear everything that we had left at ABC and Camp 2 in a single round trip from base camp, thus freeing us to stroll gently around the lower glacier, but the weather clearly had other ideas. After resting one day at base camp it again snowed and the thought of further exploration instantly lost its attraction. With no imminent improvement expected we decided to retreat to Leh for the final days before our return home.
Between the 25 August and 2 October 2016 Derek Buckle (leader), Mike Cocker, Drew Cook and Gus Morton made the first ascent of Pk 6222 (Lak Kangri) via the SE face. On 19 September, Buckle, Cocker, Cook and Morton accomplished the first ascent of their main target, Pk 6315 (Thrung-ma Kangri), via the steep south face at Alpine D. These peaks are situated in the Nubra valley.
The team gratefully acknowledges the support of the Mount Everest Foundation, the Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund, the Austrian Alpine Club, the Norwegian Alpine Club and Bergans of Norway.
DEREK BUCKLE is a retired medicinal chemist now acting part- time as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry. With plenty of free time he spends much of this rock climbing, ski-touring and mountaineering in various parts of the world. Despite climbing, his greatest challenges are finding time to accompany his wife on more traditional holidays and filling of his passport with exotic and expensive visas. Derek is Hon Local Secretary HC, UK Section.
The Vishnu Fortress Expedition, 2016
Had they been to the top? Well, yes and no. True to the sporting tradition of amateur mountaineering they had stopped three metres below a crowning cornice and decreed that the summit plinth should remain the domain of god Vishnu and his cohorts.
There is a cluster of ridges on the southern fringe of Garhwal Himalaya named Vishnu Ghar dhar – the ridge of Vishnu’s abode. This range lies to the south of the Chaukhamba massif and harbours four of the Panch Kedar temples in its valleys and ridges – Kalpeshwar, Rudranath, Tungnath and Madhyamaneshwar. The Nandi Kund trek route crosses the dissected southern flanks, and is followed by a few Indian parties each year.
I had viewed the northern faces of these peaks during an expedition to Nilkanth and the Panpatia glacier in 2000. None of the peaks tops the magic 6000 m barrier but they looked complex, serrated and heavily glaciated. A sequence of high glacier plateaux in excess of 5200 m altitude was especially intriguing. The peaks rise out of these glaciers in the style of Arctic nunataks. The old 1:150000 Survey of India map ringed four summits in excess of 5900 m, Pk 5968 m being the highest. In 2000, some of our group climbed Pk 5919 m at the eastern end of the chain and named it Lakshmi’s peak, in honour of Vishnu’s consort. I could find no reference to any other mountaineering or high-level trekking exploration of the area other than a few crossings of the Panpatia col just to the north of the range. Such neglect is surprising when one considers the proximity of the massif to the honeypots of Joshimath and Badrinath.
Ascents at sub-6000 m altitude are possible on a three-week time budget – a definite plus to those with working lives – and with a remit of exploration below the altitude where climbing permits are required I decided to make an investigation in Spring 2016. In early spring, winter snow cover would ease the approaches and we would have the pleasure of seeing the rhododendron in full bloom. The north flanks of the peaks drop into broken icefalls above the Panpatia glacier, so I decided we would go in from the south. These southern glaciers are named the Gimme and Kalapani Bamaks. Scrutiny of the Google Earth images revealed substantial icefalls on each.
Promoting a journey of discovery with an outcome unknown was not a difficult pitch to many of our regular expedition clients. We soon had 10 members signed up with Adele Pennington, Francis Blunt and me as guides. The number swelled by an addition of five Indian staff, and I reckoned we’d need 40 porters to get us all to a base camp on the Gimme glacier.
Vishnu Ghar Dhar map
We journeyed from Delhi by train to Haridwar and then by minibus up the Alaknanda valley, the resurgence of springtime signalled by the purple blossom of jacaranda trees on the roadsides. Turning off the highway 15 km before Joshimath we entered a peaceful world of pastoral harmony at Urgam. Fields of ripe wheat were arrayed across wide slopes between 2000 and 2400 m altitude shaded by huge horse chestnut trees. We paid homage to Shiva at Kalpeshwar temple where the tresses of his hair are revealed in the rock.
We assumed that we could follow the Kalpa Ganga upstream from Kalpeshwar to reach our base camp, but our Indian high-altitude porters made a prior recce and discovered that the route was washed out and dangerous, a legacy of the catastrophic flooding of June 2013. The local people advised an alternative high-level route, climbing to the Bansi Narayan temple then traversing the steep flanks of the Acchari dhar, a ridge line rising to 4758 m at its apex.
The low starting altitude imposed a big ascent on day one of the trek. We tramped 1500 m uphill to emerge from the forest on the ridge of Bansi Narayan. Our campground was besieged by rhododendron in flower. The afternoon clouds cleared to reveal the vast depths of the Joshimath valley and the great peaks beyond – Dunagiri, Nanda Devi, Trisul, et al. A small temple lies in a hollow by a fresh-water spring. Paradise didn’t last long. Within two hours of arrival we faced a porter strike and worked till the midnight hour to ferry all loads up to camp and then get porters, staff and selves fed.
An easy day was now essential to allow for acclimatization and we strolled three km across grazing meadows to another campground by a shallow tarn called Sonal Kund. We were now on the dissected flanks of Acchari dhar and needed to traverse several kilometres to reach a shoulder where we could turn into the Gimme glacier valley. There were many local folk from Urgam on the slopes, all searching for the lucrative insect fungus keeda jadi, which grows out of dead caterpillars under the snows and is revealed in spring. Keeda jadi is a powerful steroid. A single sprig is worth Rs 250, a kilo can fetch Rs 40,000 in the Chinese medicine market – a small fortune to a Garhwal villager. No locals wanted to carry loads for us, despite our upping our daily pay offer to Rs 1,000. The tables of economic power had turned! No longer can foreign trekkers set their price! Instead, we had a bunch of inexperienced and youthful porters from the Nandakini valley who didn’t know the way and struggled to manage 20 kg loads.
The traverse of Acchari dhar provided us and them with an epic. Two hours were spent lost among crags and rhododendron jungle before we all located the correct traverse-line. By this time storm- clouds were brewing. We passed only one cramped stopping point, but, buoyed by advice that we could cross the shoulder in a couple of hours, we pushed on. This was a big mistake. After hours of wetting drizzle a vicious thunderstorm with snow-squalls broke at 4:00 p. m., stranding the party across vertiginous slopes. On many sections a slip from the path would have been fatal. The porters’ clothing was woefully inadequate. Suddenly, we had a crisis. How quickly a pleasant day’s trek turn can into a battle for survival. The Annapurna circuit tragedy of 2014 came straight to mind1.
I told those nearest to dump loads and head back to Sonal Kund. They didn’t really need telling! A mass retreat ensued. We scoured loads to find tents and some sleeping bags for ourselves. An exposed ridge offered the only possible camping spot, and tents were hurriedly erected on exiguous perches. Some members spent the night without sleeping bags. The storm abated at nightfall, revealing a fresh white coating on the nearby peaks. The last porters got back to Sonal Kund camp at 11:00 p.m., but thankfully all made it. Understandably, the majority of them deserted our cause next morning and went back to Urgam.
We woke to fine weather but faced a desperate situation. Some 500 kg of our kit and food was strung out across Acchari dhar in random dumps. Over the next three days and through further thunderstorms we worked like Trojans to rectify the situation. Four young porters stayed on to help us and a few locals were persuaded to join them. Adele led an advance party over the shoulder, 600 m down into the Gimme valley and 300 m back up to find a base camp site under the glacier snout. Francis and I ferried about 250 kg of kit across the shoulder ourselves. Eventually, all our members and most importantly, our cook Naveen, were installed at base. Despite the debacle, nearly every item of equipment arrived at base camp over the following week.
After this, things could only get better! Base camp was a beautiful boulder-studded meadow fed by vigorous freshwater streams from the melting snows. The Gimme glacier curved up into an impressive icefall and at its head lay a 5300 m col. We knew that we had to cross the col to reach our main goal – the elusive Peak 5968 m. Francis and Adele reconnoitred the icefall. Opinions were divided on the safety of the planned passage up its left-hand side.
Meanwhile I took two members, Simon and Steve, on a ’training’ climb up a huge snow couloir to gain the bounding ridge of the valley at 5100 m. We were repulsed on the last metres of our objective, a fine rock tower, but were rewarded by inspiring views of the pristine Kalapani glacier and enticing rock peaks. The prevailing geology was of solid corrugated gneiss, good for rock-climbing. This was a super-alpine paradise. Our spirits were quickly crushed by three hours of oven-baked torture while we descended the gully in full glare of the midday sun, but at least we now had some reliable weather.
Vishnu Killa - Gimme icefall
Vishnu Killa. Alpine climbing at 5100 m on the Gimme-Kalapani watershed
Lakshmi’s peak and the east branch of the Gimme glacier icefall from the Kalapani watershed
While good weather lasted it was essential to make a decisive bid to find and climb Peak 5968 m. Our high-altitude porters, Heera and Mangal, were summoned to our advance camp. Adele and her strike- force of Nigel Williams and Martin Hulme together with Francis and I, got up at midnight and made a decisive climb through the icefall to emerge in a shadowed glacier bowl at 5200 m. While the others set camp Francis and I forged onwards, striding across a solid snow crust for another kilometre to reach the col at 5360 m. A blindingly beautiful view broke forth. There across the gulf of the Panpatia valley lay the bulwarks of Parvati Parbat and 6596 m Nilkanth. Most importantly, the sunlight crown of Peak 5968 m rose up to our left. We’d need to descend a hundred metres before we could commence her summit climb, and for sure this was a climb to be done at night, but the route was undoubtedly feasible with a margin of safety. I shrieked with delight.
While Adele and team settled in to the 5200 m camp we hurried back to advance camp to report the good news. As is inevitable, not all members were fit enough or sufficiently fired with enthusiasm to make the attempt, but we mustered five more members in addition to Martin and Nigel. Heera and Mangal joined us and next morning nine of us moved up to join Adele.
A happy day was spent dozing, brewing and feeding in our tents. When the sun went down we settled to four hours’ repose and got up at 10:30 p.m. to start the summit bid. Francis forged ahead with youngsters, David and Phil and stalwart ‘oldie’ Raymond who had only just recovered from fever. We fixed a short rope to descend from the col and passed a psychological threshold. Now we were committed. The night hours passed in a serpentine ascent of the glacier, weaving round huge crevasses and ice walls. Adele and I met the dawn at 5700 m on the upper slopes. The eastern skyline was punctured by the spears and obelisks of the great peaks of the Nanda Devi range. The sunrise came slow but at 6 : 00 a. m. the sun burst forth in glory.
Vishnu Killa (5968 m) from Gimme col
Pk 5882 m with Nanda Devi behind during the final ascent
Chaukhamba south face from the summit
Chaukhamba south face with Pk 5898 m in foreground
Nilkanth and Kamet from the summit of Vishnu Killa
Soon after, Francis and team passed us on their descent, close on two hours ahead of us.
Had they been to the top? Well, yes and no. True to the sporting tradition of amateur mountaineering they had stopped three metres below a crowning cornice and decreed that the summit plinth should remain the domain of god Vishnu and his cohorts. Adele and I applied no such scruples on our arrival. With the aid of two axes she heaved up the overhang with a timely push on her bottom from below. The rest of us followed, most poignantly Heera and Mangal, for whom this was one of their cherished local summits.
The views of distant giants like Kamet were tempered by intriguing prospects of nearby glaciers and surrounding peaks. The name Vishnu Killa – Vishnu’s citadel – was mooted. The only disappointment was that our GPS recorded the altitude as a mere 5960 m rather than the 5968 we expected!
By midday the last stragglers staggered back into camp, enervated rather than ecstatic. A succession of brews and a freeze-dried meal soon restored equilibrium.
Next morning, we all returned safely to base camp in the shadowed hours after dawn and celebrated success with a tot of malt whisky and a feast of pakora. The discoveries of our short trip has opened the potential a new playground for Indian mountaineering, where technical training can be undertaken at modest altitude on good rock with upwards of a dozen attractive peaks, at all desired standards of difficulty. Next year? Onwards to the Kalapani….
A light weight ascent of Vishnu Killa (5960 m) in Garhwal Himalaya.
Read about MARTIN MORAN on Page 155.
The First Ascent of the South Face of Brammah II
I remembered at that moment that profound experience and the deep seated friendships we form in the mountains are the true summit.
Early in 2016, I was reminiscing over images from the last expedition with my good friend and regular climbing partner, Chris Gibisch. It had been too long since our experience in western China’s Daxue Shan range and the trip down memory lane ended with me picking up the phone to point out to Chris, “... I think it’s time to go somewhere.”
Being the ‘up for anything’ alpinist that he is, Chris was easy to convince. The question was... where? We have always been most drawn toward objectives that require exploration and an emphasis on adventure. Reports indicated that adventure was easy to find in northern India so, after seeing the stunning imagery from lines completed the previous year by friends, it seemed to us that this was a good region to ‘have a look’.
Northern India’s Kishtwar National Park has been mostly off limits to foreigners since the early 1980’s. After we ‘flew’ the area on Google Earth, iconic and pyramidal peaks throughout the range clearly showed potential. The rudimentary imagery Google provided hinted at steep rock and ice faces throughout the Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh Himalaya. Further research revealed that not only did many of these peaks remain unclimbed...some of the most attractive faces hadn’t even been photographed! This was indeed where we wanted to go.
So, in early October, with support from the Mugs Stump Award and the Copp Dash Inspiration, Chris and I boarded a plane...but with mixed emotions following the aftermath of losing two brothers from our mountain community five days prior. When Scott (Adamson) and Kyle (Dempster) disappeared, it shook us to our core. We knew we had to go; to continue on our path – but the serious nature of the Himalaya had us introspecting about the decisions we make - how it affects our friends and family - how it affects our lives. The result was that we left without any real expectations. We’d simply ‘go’. No photos existed of the south face of Brammah II so, we’d have to take it one step at a time and maintain a ‘see what we find’ attitude.
The three-day drive began after typical pre-expedition formalities at the IMF, deep in the chaos of Delhi. Once past the mountain town of Manali, we continued to the Buddhist village of Udaipur through the mighty Himachal Pradesh, followed by another full day to Galabgarh on one of the wildest roads either of us had ever experienced. Drops of 300 m straight to the river below had us laughing out loud when the tires of the Jeep came within 12 cm of ‘the fast way down’. Being a passionate BASE jumper, I remember thinking that much of the road would have been a very nice ‘exit’.
Our expedition began with the task of getting our massive pile of gear, 12 porters and the two of us, along with our government-appointed Liaison Officer, across the cable trolley that bridged the Chenab river. It would be three more days of hiking big loads through heat that had me question whether we were actually ascending into the high Himalaya. The Kijai nala is notorious for difficult travel but we found the locals and goat trails to be reasonable and beautiful although, we were informed by a local herdsman during the second morning of our approach that a leopard had killed one of his prized cows only a 100 m above our camp. Still, the occasional snake, monkeys and even a flying squirrel made for good company as we made progress up the steep nala toward mountains we travelled from the other side of the world to find...but still could not see.
On the third day, we had to cross a bridge that pushed the limits of what our porters felt was within their pay grade. The final result was our gear, not much past the bridge, laid to rest in a spot that would have to do as our base camp. Even though it was kilometres away and, hundreds of metres below where we were hoping to set up, it was hard to be anything but psyched! Big smiles and waves of encouragement from the Nepali crew left us alone with the two Indian friends who would stay with us at camp to support our expedition. It was simply time to ‘get to work’.
Over the next two weeks, we slowly unlocked the mysteries of the approach. Weather was a bit ‘too perfect’ with temperatures well into the 30s, and the mountains spoke loudly and often. Spontaneous rockfall, collapsing seracs and the absence of ice on the lower half of Arjuna all helped us to narrow our focus toward an acceptable objective. Racked up for a ‘fast and light’ mixed rock and ice route, (in other words, not having the gear or time for a big wall route), the unclimbed south face of Brammah II seemed like the best fit. Starting just above 5666 m, the 1400 m wall that made up the technical part of the southern aspect seemed to have most of the elements we were hoping for. We just had to find our way to the base, a prospect that was not as straight forward as a simple hike to the wall.
It took two full days and involved a ‘run for our lives’ under an overhanging serac band that, like us, spent the warm afternoons sweating until collapse. But, when we did eventually reach the hanging glacial at 5181 m to get our first view of the south face, we were psyched to see a few options that not only looked logical, but fun, big and adventurous. As the afternoon heat built, the clouds did as well and the mountain again came alive. One of the most attractive lines was repeatedly scoured by numerous rock and ice avalanches which, narrowed our choices and increased our conviction to start early.
The first morning, we simul-climbed 333 m in the dark while the sky was continually strobed by lightning flashes from a distant storm, intensifying the ambience of our position. By late in the afternoon, thin ribbons of blue ice bisecting short rock steps (welcome reprieves from endless 70°, calf burner alpine ice) led us to a ridge line bivvy that I would have paid for. We had the best views in the house and a very welcome rest after a long day on the move in heat we’d never experienced in the high mountains. We were at 6666 m and right on schedule.
The next day started off with an epic sunrise while traversing a ‘good morning’ pitch through fun mixed ground leading back onto the ice- face proper. A 166 m band of orange and gold granite seemed to guard the summit slopes but upon a closer inspection, the ramping ‘sneak’ that we’d hoped to find was indeed there. The chimney and crack system created a weakness that had us hooting and hollering. To emphasize the point, Chris took off his gloves in the warm temps to ‘bare-hand’ the last cruxy boulder problem, looking down to laugh out loud.
The best views in the house
As the day wore on, we ascended and traversed the summit slopes to the southeast. I was relieved when I finally built a belay in a rock band that I felt confident was close to the top. I couldn’t see the summit from the overhanging rock band but, I ‘knew’ it was there. Less than 60 m further, the rope stopped moving and when I joined Chris, we sat together smiling, surrounded by one of the most dramatic horizons either of us had ever seen, and could go no higher. Pointy, raw and rugged peaks were lit up by the last rays of the sun in every direction and barely a breath of wind interrupted our silence as we took it all in.
After rappelling more than 333 m, we arrived at the top of a steep, broad ice face just before midnight and were officially ‘cooked’. While chopping seats into the ancient, bullet hard ice to sit in for the night, more lightning strobed the sky and I couldn’t help but to look over at Chris, my friend and brother for more than 15 years, and consider our surroundings. We were in one of the most remote spots on the planet, at 6666 m, at midnight, and we were both completely worked but – we were friends and on a hell of an adventure. I remembered at that moment that profound experience and the deep seated friendships we form in the mountains are the true summit.
Looking down to laugh out loud
The Summit Selfie
The line up the south face of Brammah II
Two friends – Jeff Shapiro and Chris Gibisch make the first ascent of the south face of Brammah II, 6486 m (VI AI4, M5, 1300 m).
JEFF SHAPIRO has been climbing for 28 years and says that his time in the mountains has shaped his entire life and perspective. He currently lives in Montana, USA with his wife and daughter. Jeff makes his living as a professional climber, and pilot of Wing Suits, Hang Gliders and Paragliders. He is also a Master Falconer, training hawks and falcons to hunt with him and his dog.
The Cho Oyu summit is flat and requires hours of walk on the plateau to get a view of Mt. Everest – the point which marks the actual summit.
The journey began with Giripremi’s Pune Everest 2012 expedition one of the largest Indian civilian expeditions to Mt. Everest. It saw a huge success, particularly in terms of promoting mountaineering and the support it garnered. The quest for eight-thousanders continued – in 2013, Giripremi scaled Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. Makalu, the fifth highest mountain was also scaled successfully in 2014.
Giripremi was poised to continue the journey in 2015 by scaling yet another eight-thousander, but a devastating earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April 2015. Giripremi’s 10 member team rose to the crisis and immediately rushed to contribute to rescue and relief operations in the remote areas of Dhading and Sindhupal Chauk districts.
In 2016, Giripremi decided to scale two eight-thousanders, the sixth and seventh highest peaks in the world – Cho Oyu and Dhaulagiri, mounting two separate expeditions, with fresh young members who had completed mountaineering courses and participated in expeditions in the Indian Himalaya. To groom them, a pre-eight- thousander expedition was organized to Indrasan and a neighbouring unnamed peak. Later, after a successful ascent, the unnamed peak was named Nalini peak. Everester Ganesh More was part of the Cho Oyu expedition and Everesters Ashish Mane and Prasad Joshi were in the Dhaulagiri expedition. I was part of the Cho Oyu expedition.
Scaling an eight-thousander poses numerous challenges. For the Cho Oyu team, Tibet was new territory. Although Giripremi had a good track record and is a renowned mountaineering club, raising the required finances was a struggle.
After a year’s preparation, the Dhaulagiri expedition team started the approach on 9 April, 2016. After a six-day trek, the team reached Dhaulagiri Base Camp on 15 April. This was the first season after the turmoil in the region so there were few expeditions at the Base Camp. Members started getting acclimatized in rotation from 23 April. By 7 May, the team gradually reached Camp 2 (6400 m) and returned to Base Camp. On 12 May, Ashish Mane, Prasad Joshi, Akshay Patke, and Pawan Hadole, started their first summit attempt. On 12 May, the team reached Camp 1. On 13 May the team started ascent from Camp 1 (5700 m) to Camp 2 (6400 m). Pawan Hadole suffered severe stomach ache while climbing from Camp 1 to Camp 2 – he finally had to descend to Base Camp. The rest of team climbed up to Camp 3 (7200 m). On 15 May, the team launched a summit bid from Camp 3 and reached 7900 m at 1:30 p.m., but due to snowfall and high wind speed (above 50 km/h) they abandoned further movement and returned back to Camp 2 (6400 m). Finally as weather conditions continued to be challenging, most climbers returned. Prasad, Akshay along with Sherpa Dorchi and Sherpa Tenzing waited.
During the same period, the Cho Oyu team had reached the mountain via Lhasa. Due to restrictions on roadways between Nepal and China, the team had to fly to Lhasa. Most foreign climbers faced problems in getting required permissions to fly to Lhasa from Nepal so many dropped plans of going to Cho Oyu and Shisha Pangma. The Indian embassy in Nepal helped our team to get the required permissions. On 19 April, Giripremi’s team reached Lhasa and got glimpse of the Tibetan plateau, a flat dry terrain with winds blowing all-round the day. The team travelled by road from Lhasa to the Cho Oyu base camp through Shigatse and Tingri. There were few teams at the Base Camp and ours was the only Indian team. Cho Oyu is often referred to as the easiest eight-thousander; sometimes people refer to it as a trekking peak. But it has all the challenges of other eight- thousanders. The peak is safe, though, from most objective hazards like crevasses, icefall and avalanches. There are multiple patches of technical climbing between Camp 2 and Camp 3. At base camp news of the death of two climbers on Shisha Pangma trickled in – it was said that all the expeditions to the mountain were being withdrawn.
Cho Oyu Camp 1
The entire expedition was worried since it was the first season after the earthquake. Climbers, Sherpas and their families were all hoping for a safe season, without any big disaster. Till 30 April we did only one acclimatization rotation towards Camp 1 from Advance Base Camp. The Advance Base Camp was situated at an altitude of 5700 m. After that there was continuous snowfall for the next twelve days. Dr. Sumit Mandale, whose first eight-thousander expedition this was, worried that practically no acclimatization climbs happened in the expedition. Meanwhile, weather forecast predicted a short weather window around 12 - 13 May. The forecast also predicted that weather might not be favorable after this window. We took the decision to attempt the summit. Other expeditions at base camp decided to wait further in the hope of getting better weather at a later stage. Some quick calculations were – Day 1 – Camp 1, Day 2 – Camp 2, Day 3 – Camp 3, Day 4 - summit day and return, Day 5 - base camp return. The route had not been opened till then and Ganesh More decided to attempt a climb without bottled oxygen. We needed more support so I decided to stay back dedicating two Sherpas with Ganesh for a safe and fast ascent of Cho Oyu. Not climbing helped me to monitor the situation on both expeditions, i. e. Cho Oyu as well as Dhaulagiri, and take decisions. We were connected through a satellite phone.
On 11 May, Ganesh and Sumit started their summit attempt from Advance Base Camp. They reached Camp 1 on the same day, Camp 2 on 12 May and finally Camp 3 on 13 May. The route opening and a strenuous fast ascent led to Ganesh using bottled oxygen after 7400 m. This was crucial for the success of the expedition, since much energy was required to open the route to the summit. The Cho Oyu summit is flat and requires hours of walk on the plateau to get a view of Mt. Everest – the point which marks the actual summit. On 14 May, Ganesh More and Sumit Mandale reached the summit of Cho Oyu. They descended safely to Advance Base Camp on 15 May. This was the first Indian team to have climbed the peak successfully.
Two days later on 17 May, Prasad Joshi and Akhay Patke launched another summit attempt from Camp 2 of Dhaulagiri, and reached Camp 3. Later that evening when they started the summit bid from Camp 3 strong winds at 80-100 kmph started blowing. The team had to abandon yet another summit attempt and return to Camp 3. On the morning of 18 May, Akshay Patke and Phu Dorjee Sherpa returned. Despite the long exposure to the extreme altitude, unfavorable weather conditions, and psychological pressure, Prasad remained calm and committed towards the goal. Along with two Sherpas, Prasad started made a bid for the summit for the third time, from Camp 3 on 18 May. He reached the summit of Dhaulagiri on 19 May 2016. Coincidently, on the same date (19 May) he had stood atop Mt. Everest along with seven other mountaineers.
Cho Oyu (8201 m) seen from Advance Base Camp
I was very happy to see both teams back in Kathmandu safe and successful.
Umesh Zirpe, leader of Giripremi’s Cho Oyu and Dhaulagiri Expedition 2016, describes simultaneous attempts on two eight thousand metre peaks – Cho Oyu and Dhaulagiri in Nepal by the Pune based Giripremi mountaineers club.
UMESH ZIRPE, is an experienced mountaineer and organizer of large expeditions. He has organized over 20 successful expeditions including Everest, Lohtse, Makalu, Cho-Oyu and Dhaulagiri. A Shree Shiv Chatrapati Sports Awardee, he is Director of the Guardian Giripremi Institute of Mountaineering, the first climbing institute in Maharashtra and author of several articles and a book on Everest.
The others eventually came up to join me and then pushed on to the summit proper, which was an arrangement of tottering blocks. Unrestricted views into Zanskar, Pangi and towards Kashmir greeted us at the top. The sun shone and there wasn’t a breath of wind.
The idea of climbing in Kishtwar first cropped up in the early 1990s. Graham Little was my climbing partner at the time and he told me about a 5618 m high unclimbed peak called Gupta that he’d seen from the top of nearby Rohini Shikhar, which he climbed in 1989. It’s a shapely rock peak dominating the Dharlang nala and knowing how good the granite was likely to be, we both thought that Gupta would be a plumb objective to go for.
Unfortunately, our application to climb the mountain was rejected three days before we were due to leave the UK in September 1996. We were told there had been some insurgent activity in Gulab Garh and the Government of India had decided to close Kishtwar to climbers. It remained closed for the next 17 years. This didn’t matter to us though; Graham pulled a rabbit out of a hat with a superb alternative suggestion for a new route, the north face of Kullu Eiger in Parvati Valley, Himachal Pradesh. The timely intervention of Dr M S Gill secured us IMF permission in three days and the expedition went ahead successfully.
Then in 2013 Mick Fowler sprung open the doors to Kishtwar by getting consent to climb Kishtwar Kailash. Although he may not have been the first to re-enter the area, it was this widely reported climb of his that brought Kishtwar to everyone’s attention and has prompted a headlong gold rush of climbers ever since, drawn to a paradise of amazing unclimbed granite walls and peaks. So, I thought we needed to get in there and climb Gupta before anyone else did!
I sent a picture of Gupta’s majestic north face taken by Mick, to my good American friends, Mark Richey and Mark Wilford, and they were instantly on for another trip together to follow our last epic to Saser Kangri II in 2009. The thing I like about these guys is they put every last ounce of effort into everything they do, so I knew we’d have an adventure to remember.
Richey, Wilford and Lowther on summit of Gupta, Day 4 (Mark Wilford)
‘Gold rush’ might be a bit of an exaggeration though. The road along the Chandra Bhaga gorge, particularly the section between Udaipur and Gulab Garh, has to be one of the most extreme road building endeavours in the world and travelling along it is not for the faint hearted. But we met two American teams on our journey which certainly created the impression of there being a gold rush even if collectively we were the only visitors to the area in 2017.
Kaushal Desai organized our trip for us and we met him at his HQ in Manali after an overnight super deluxe sleeper bus journey from Delhi on 9 September that was so uncomfortable that we decided get a private jeep for our return journey. Kaushal was Mick’s recommendation and he did a great job for us throughout the trip starting with prompt and helpful replies to emails during the planning period all the way through to providing us with a great team and good base camp kit and food, not to mention hard core jeep drivers and proficient horsemen too. But military sensitivities still required us to approach Kishtwar from the Rohtang pass, hence starting from Manali and the scary two day jeep journey down the Chandra Bhaga gorge with an overnight stop at Udaipur. The latter part of the road route is cut out of vertical granite and a 500 m sheer drop into the river gorge yawns on one side; we only saw three other vehicles on the road that day. After a very dusty, teeth-rattling journey we finally arrived at Gulab Garh late in the evening of the 11th and stayed in the comfortable Satyam Shiram guest house.
After completing formalities with the police the following morning we started our trek up the Dharlang nala with 15 horses carrying our gear. The pony drivers didn’t hang around and progress was so swift that the villages we passed through on the way went by in a blur. But the lushness of the valley, the heady scent of the cedar forest and the ever present roar of the river in post monsoon spate, was, to say the least, memorable. The village houses are painted bright primary colours of red, blue and even yellow that contrast with the dun browns of the farmland in full harvest : stubble fields, stacked stoops of cut barley and hay and standing crops of nearly-mature maize.
The two Marks are more familiar with the scrub approaches of arid parts of the Karakoram, so green and verdant Kishtwar was a welcome break for them as well as providing a feast of bird-watching opportunities. In my case the virgin forest was a dendrologist’s paradise with no evidence of logging and a wide variety of tree species to admire such as southern beech, chestnut, walnut, different types of cedar, sugar pine, maple, sycamore and the most enormous elm trees I’ve ever seen.
We stopped at the village of Chishot where our super-organized Liaison Officer Rajender Sharma (aka Rinku) arranged for us to sleep in the grounds of the temple. First thing the following morning, the 13th, Chishot was alive and busy with major outbound traffic of sheep and goats driven by their Muslim shepherds who were heading down to the Kashmir valley now that winter was approaching. Walking against the flow of animals along winding, dusty narrow paths, we eventually broke through the top of the tree line to be greeted by wide open fields around Machel, the temple site of the Hindu God Chandi Matta and the focal point of many thousands of pilgrims (who unfortunately left a lot of litter behind them). Here we completed the last formalities with police and continued on to Dengel, the last bridge in the valley, where we met two young American climbers, Crystal and Whitney Clark from Colorado. They were stranded in Dengel because their horses had bolted the night before and they were awaiting the arrival of new ones, so we said goodbye and good luck and never saw them again close up. Each team progressed up the valley on opposite sides of the river, aiming for different objectives, so we could only wave at them on the couple of occasions that we saw them afterwards.
Gupta, showing route (Mick Fowler)
The trekking was fast and easy on the 14th. The route took us first through more cedar pine forest, then birch and the river became smaller and quieter. After two or three steps in the valley we levelled off at 3500 m and it became a series of wide open pastures and the river a braided gravel bed that looked deceptively crossable (which it wasn’t). This continued all day and by 4:00 p.m. we found a decent enough base camp opposite Gupta…but on the wrong side of the river. We were underneath lots of granite towers, amidst huge climbable boulders and we could see Mick’s superb route up Kishtwar Kailash.
Richey on Tyrolean (Mark Richey)
Our camp staff, Pritam Yangthangi and Amit Bodh, made a delicious dinner of chicken from one of the six that made it to base camp alive inside a metal box on the back of one of our horses. We were told that we had 90 unbroken eggs left from the 150 that we set off with, which meant we could still have plenty of omelettes every morning that we were in base camp. Getting drinkable water was a challenge though because we were camped beside a river draining the Chomochoi glacier which was thick with rock flour and required filtering. However we’d brought a horse load’s worth of beer with us to compensate our thirst quenching needs.
The pony team left us on the morning of the 15 September and we arranged for them to come back on 01 October to collect us for the return journey. That gave us a fortnight to scope the mountain and climb it. But first we had to work out how to get across the river, which looked like it was crossable lower down but wasn’t an appealing prospect at base camp. I’ve lost two friends to river crossing accidents and I treat Himalayan rivers with the greatest of respect and this one looked just as tricky as the rest.
Richey came up with the bright idea that one of us should swim across the river – which it was decided would be me – with a rope as a safety line that would then be tensioned across a shortened span of river between the framing of a collapsed shepherd’s bridge. Amazingly this worked, so feeling rather chuffed with ourselves we pushed on up Gupta following a series of grassy ledges and the tracks of Bharal goats and we left a cache of hardware at 4300 m before heading down again.
The Tyrolean rope bridge worked quite well at first but however hard we tightened the 7 mm Kevlar cord, the 25 m span was too wide and we got wet each time we pulled ourselves across. Wilford solved the problem with the introduction of an 8.5 mm dynamic rope to augment the cord, which we fixed the following day and Richey tested this a couple of times and floated across the river a good six feet above the water. Very pleased with this, we went back to base camp and assembled three days of food and clothing for a carry up to a new high camp that we established at 4600 m on the 18th on scree beside a small snow field in the middle of the northeast face. This required a fair amount of rock shifting and dirt scraping and shovelling to make a level platform for a bivvy tent and one sleeping position for a person outside, but was worth it because this was to be our launch pad for the technical climbing above and a place to sleep and acclimatize.
Spot the jeep in Chandra Bhaga gorge
We ferried a second load up from the cache to the launch pad on the 19th and spent another night there before descending to base camp on the 20th. Up until this point the weather had been consistently good and stable and since we were ahead of schedule we decided to have two days’ rest. This suited me because I came down with a fever and was bedridden whilst the two Mark’s went bouldering on 22nd. Richey had a fall and cracked his heel bone on landing but didn’t know this until he got back to the States; in the meantime he bore the pain and hobbled around base camp and suffered during the climb. I meanwhile succumbed to a tick bite that brought me out in a livid itchy rash from head to toe, so we extended the rest period by another two days to allow both Richey and me to recover. It then rained in base camp on the 24th for the whole day, which made us feel less guilty about having a rest. This was the only day’s bad weather on the whole trip and when the clouds parted the dark granite of the north face had a thin covering of powder snow and the temperature adjusted downwards for the rest of the trip.
View towards Zanskar from camp 3
Wilford and Lowther close to summit, Day 4 (Mark Richey)
We adjusted our tactics and took with us a three man tent to swap with the two man bivvy tent at the launch pad on the 25th in case we had to sit out bad weather waiting for the summit push. In the event, the weather was fantastic for the climb and we had clear views of the whole of the Kishtwar range and beyond for the duration of the climb. The route to the launch pad (Camp 1) was pretty convoluted but very safe, linking together grassy terraces, animal trods, scree rakes and the like. When we arrived at the camp the two Marks had enough energy to walk to the top of a tower above the camp to spy out the route across the northeast face towards the east ridge. They spied a promising line and left a fixed rope for the first pitch in the morning.
North buttress of Sersank – Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders were climbing it at that very moment
Jim Lowther at Camp 3 (Mark Wilford)
On the 26th we moved off from camp 1 at 4800 m up scree and a small snow field to the base of the fixed rope and jumared up this to the top of a pinnacle ridge that connected to the main face. Once on this Richey lead about six pitches up snow covered rocks over the next six hours to a decent bivvy site tucked well into the northeast face. We did some heavy engineering to make flat ledges out of dirt and settled down for the night after a frugal meal of salami, cheese, crackers, Ramen noodles and tea. Wilford slept outside on an enormous yellow blow up mattress and Richey and I had the two man bivvy tent to ourselves.
The sun hit Camp 2 at 6:20 a.m. the next morning but we decided to sit it out and wait for our gear to dry. There was no hurry, it was warm and blue skies promised glorious mixed climbing across the northeast face to the east ridge. Richey lead off across a snow ramp and scratched his way up a strenuous pitch through an overhanging chimney and a snow-filled rake towards another snow patch. Another pitch followed and then the best pitch of the whole climb, an upward-slanting traverse left across snow covered slabs with frozen turf placements for tools and tiny in-cuts for mono points, all of it about grade M5. Wilford and I followed up this, seconding, reaching the sunlit east ridge to be greeted by an ebullient Richey. We were looking across the width of the east ridge which consisted of climbable granite slabs and ledges; this narrowed to a finer ridge above so we thought easier ground would be found by traversing across to the southern side of the east ridge. This is the side of the mountain that we couldn’t see from base camp so we were beginning to think the whole mountain would go.
I led a couple of pitches, then Wilford a couple and then Richey took us up to a snow patch that cut through the east ridge onto the broad south face. We scrambled up this for about 100 m and found a superb bivvy site perched hard on the east ridge with the summit beckoning above us! The mountain was not throwing any nasty surprises at us so spirits were high as we melted ice and brewed up for summit day; the Americans slept in the tent and I had a spacious ledge outside with awesome views of peaks to the south and stars above.
The sun woke us at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of the 28th but we weren’t on our way until 9:00; we wanted the rock to be warm for the summit day. Wilford wore rock shoes again and climbed three straightforward pitches up the ridge. Richey followed this with two harder pitches of about 5.9 in big boots on truly immaculate, grippy granite with lots of gear placements and chicken heads for holds. I seconded all of this and then pitched through up snow to the summit ridge which was a snow cornice overhanging a vertical drop down the featureless north face.
The others eventually came up to join me and then pushed on to the summit proper, which was an arrangement of tottering blocks. Unrestricted views into Zanskar, Pangi and towards Kashmir greeted us at the top. The sun shone and there wasn’t a breath of wind. We did some self-timed photos and whilst looking around noticed a tiny red dot 1000 m below us on the glacier to the north of Gupta. It must have been the two American girls in their tent so we shouted down at them and got some faint shouts and waves back. Camaraderie in the mountains and an unclimbed summit all to ourselves with expansive views under a windless blue sky and our trip climaxed at that moment!
To the southeast we could see the imposing profile of Shib Shankar (aka Sersank), the north buttress of which was at that very moment being climbed by Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders. I remembered failing miserably on this mountain in 2007 : Graham Little and I turned back halfway up the northwest ridge when we encountered friable shale so it was nice to know that it was being climbed in good style by some Brits.
Feeling well pleased with our efforts and thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we slowly started a descent back to camp 3, which went in about four raps. All of us were cream crackered. I have to hand it to my two partners for their intuitive route finding, gutsy but safe climbing and perpetual good humour, which is why I like climbing with them so much.
Hoar frost coated my sleeping bag as a weak sun tried to penetrate swirling clouds at 6:30 on the morning of the 29th. I got up and made some brews but the others weren’t going to budge, so I melted snow for the day’s water canisters. We had that sinking feeling of knowing the descent was going to be difficult so we weren’t in a hurry but eventually we were away by 9:30-ish. The descent was first a scramble to the snow patch on the east ridge, then three raps to a ledge system that we could walk along to the edge of the east ridge. Wilford persuaded us to take a direct line straight down the northeast face, down a snow gully filled with rock spikes, about 10 raps in all until we were back at the Camp 1 tent. It was a miracle we didn’t get our ropes hung. We left there at 2:30 p.m. and were down at the Tyrolean by dusk at 6:00, concluding an excellent five-day Alpine-style climb. Rinku met us with a big smile and walked us back to base camp whereupon we were greeted by Pritam and Amit with cups of tea, chicken and whisky.
The sun stayed with us for two more days at base camp and the two day walk out with the horses. We waved at the American girls across the river when we passed their camp. They shouted their congratulations and news of their adventures but I don’t think they climbed anything. If you haven’t got a fixed objective to go for it’s easy to get blown away by all the possibilities and end up getting nothing done.
As we left the Dharlang nala we carried with us memories of a happy and successful trip in beautiful unspoilt surroundings. The journey to Kishtwar is a long one but there is plenty of scope for future exploration of unclimbed peaks that make it worthwhile.
A successful ascent of Gupta in the Kishtwar area of Jammu & Kashmir by a British / American team
JIM LOWTHER owns and manages an agricultural estate in the Lake District in North England and runs a commercial landscaping business, a farm with 5,000 sheep and Lowther Castle which is a visitor attraction and restoration project. He is a bee farmer with 200 beehives and a mountain explorer. His 13 trips to Greenland have included long ski / sledging journeys including the fifth crossing of the ice cap, interspersed with about 45 ascents of virgin peaks. Jim’s trips to the Himalaya have included attempts on Arganglas, Sepu Kangri, Nenang, Saser Kangri 2 and successful first ascents of Rangrik Rang, Suitilla, Kullu Eiger and Gupta. Jim is married to Vanessa and has four children.
The view of Satopanth massif from Sundar glacier is one of the most breathtaking views I have ever had in the Indian Himalaya. The scale and grandeur of Satopanth simply dominates the canvas here. Once one takes the turn from Chaturangi glacier and drops down to Sundar Bamak, one enters the royal court of the mighty Satopanth.
The happy climber, like the aged Ulysses, is one who has “drunk delight of battle with his peers”, and this delight is only attainable by assaulting cliffs which tax to their utmost limits of the powers of the mountaineers engaged. This struggle involves the same risk, whether early climbers attacked what we now call easy rock, or whether we moderns attack formidable rock, or whether the ideal climber of the future assaults cliffs which we now regard as hopelessly inaccessible.
Snow coated the mountain range and one mountain in particular.
All of the other mountains stood nearby.
Calling it fortunate, calling it lucky.
The mountain was proud; its peers have noticed him for the very first time.
-Peter Mariutto, Observation & Perception
The Mountain and its Peers
It was the end of July, 1947. The Swiss Garhwal Expedition, after the miraculous survival of their Sherpa Sirdar Wangdi Norbu2 and after successfully climbing Kedarnath, moved up east towards Chaturangi glacier with the intention to climb Bhagirathi I. But, as they got closer to their objective, they were not so sure anymore. Andre Roch writes, “We established a camp at about 16,000 feet at Chaturangi and on 29th July we started off up the Sundar glacier. It turned to the right and we could not quite see to the head, but such as was visible was hardly encouraging. The valley was closed by a granite wall topped with blue ice which broke off continually, starting avalanches that swept right over the glacier. I hesitated, for if the entire approach was threatened by falling seracs, Bhagirathi would be out of the question.
Lakhpa Sherpa heading down the sharp north east ridge of Satopanth after summit (Christian Ranke)
My friends thought the approach to Satopanth seemed better, so we changed our plans, and, not wishing to waste the rest of the day, we decided to establish a camp at its foot. It was pouring with rain, but we climbed to about 18,000 feet and pitched our tents on the moraine of the side glacier which flows from Satopanth itself.”3
Satopanth as seen from summit of unnamed peak 6010 m
In the summit party of Satopanth, theirs was a team of three Swiss alpinists (Rene Dittert, Alexander Graven, Andre Roch) and five Sherpas. Andre Roch writes about the summit day, “Next morning Tenzing4 started the primus at 2.30 and an hour and a half later we left the camp on two ropes, Sutter and Graven, followed by Dittert and me. It was still dark, but the sun rose as we climbed the first slope... On the last rocks, 500 feet below the summit ridge, we paused. Here the slope became much steeper, the top was overhung with cornices, and the avalanche danger seemed greater than ever. We hesitated, wondering what to do. My friends tied themselves to a rock and I climbed 70 yards, the length of the two ropes knotted end to end. Then I dug a hole in the snow from where I could make a decision. A slightly crusted layer of snow about 2 feet thick rested on the ice without sticking to it, and a small granulous layer separated the snow from the ice. This was perfect for avalanches, but I thought that, had the situation really been as dangerous as it appeared, an avalanche would already have swept down, or at least there would be signs of cracks on the north face. There were neither, and I estimated that the weight of four men on the layer of snow should not be enough to start an avalanche. Besides, it would have been a shame to have given up so near the summit. Unroped, I climbed the slope alone to see if it would go. The snow held, and I reached the ridge in about twenty minutes, crossed it and sat down on my sack to rest and look at the incomparable view. My friends soon joined me.”
Thus, Satopanth became an ‘unexpected conquest’ for the team and the mountain was climbed for the very first time. Apart from this expedition climbing, Satopanth (and few more mountains in the same trip), it was special as this was the first post war foreign expedition to climb in India5. But this was not the first time the mountain had seekers. Satopanth was first attempted by an Austrian team (R. Schwarzgruber) in 1938, from both the northeast and northwest ridges, but without success. The second ascent was made only in 1981, again from the northeast ridge, (M. Gardzielewski and L. Lehrer). Then in 1982, a Japanese team (K. Toya) made the third ascent of the mountain. The west summit was climbed first by a Japanese team (M. Omiya) from the northwest ridge in 1984. The south face (from the Swachand Bamak) was first attempted by Polish climbers in 1983, and by Hungarians and the Japanese in 1984. This face was first climbed by a Polish team (R. Kolakowski and T. Kopys) in 19866.
The first Indian attempts on the mountain were made by a Kolkata based club ‘Gangotri Glacier Exploration Committee’ (G.G.E.C) in 1968 and 1974 consecutively. Biren Sarkar, the leader of the 1974 expedition, wrote :
After its failure to climb Satopanth (23123’) in 1968, Gangotri Glacier Exploration Committee took it as a prime objective to make another attempt on the same peak... without employing any Sherpas or instructors from any mountaineering institute. With this end in view, team consisting of 14 members pushed onto Sundar Bamak and set up a main base at 17400’...Members reconnoitred the upper region of Sundar Bamak, fixed up rope on the dangerous and difficult north ridge at 19000’. Unfortunately, series of avalanches roared down from the crest of the north ridge at 19000’ and this has in fact prevented us from setting up a camp...from where the summit attempt was anticipated to be made. Sujal Mukherjee, one of our climbing members, had also developed lung trouble with fever and breathing difficulty. Considering the seriousness of the situation we had to abandon the expedition and rush to the lower region for safety. It was therefore our second defeat.7
Sujal Mukherjee, the climber who developed pneumonia in the 1974 Satopanth climb, happens to be my uncle. Much later, I learnt from my interactions with Sujal, how deeply he felt about ‘almost’ climbing Satopanth back in 1974. Over the years, after going through similar experiences myself, I can relate to Sujal’s feelings totally. But what I admire more than anything else is the fact they were climbing Satopanth without any Sherpa or high altitude porter support. Back in those days this style of mountaineering was unthinkable in the India - the scene hasn’t changed much today.
Although in 1974 the G.G.E.C gang were lucky enough to escape any fatalities, another Indian team in May 1986 was not so lucky. They met with a sad and disastrous end as an avalanche took away four lives and among them was Dr Minoo Mehta8. While writing the obituary for Dr Mehta, Brigadier Gyan Singh wrote : “ he was not too enamoured of the imported mountaineering culture. They are too competitive and commercial, he felt. He thought Indians could evolve their own mountaineering ethos in keeping with their culture and heritage.”9
Satopanth, its north east ridge and our camp on the col (Christian Ranke)
We did perhaps see a hint of the ‘mountaineering ethos’ Dr Minoo Mehta talked about in his post Everest (1984) ventures. In 1985, he led a two-man expedition to Matri and then in 1986 another lightweight expedition to Satopanth, which in an unforgiving manner took away the entire team of climbers.
Satopanth is one of the most well-known and popular mountains (after Nun possibly) in the Indian Himalaya. It is difficult to get a booking with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in a desirable period as agents tend to pre-book the mountain for their ‘clients’. Western climbers, especially Germans, seem to have developed a fascination for Satopanth (while the French have for Nun). This is possibly due to its impressive altitude and technical permutations and combinations of varying difficulty, which the massif has to offer. Many large Indian expeditions regularly climb Satopanth as part of their pre-Everest exercise and leave the mountain scathed and littered in the process10
But to my comrades and me, people like Dr Mehta and Sujal make the mountain more interesting and worthy of a climb and that too in a style and ethos that climbers like them stood for. Satopanth killed Dr. Mehta in 1986 and cancer took away Sujal Mukherjee in 1994. But their legacy lives on to keep inspiring us.
Our team united in Delhi on 28 Aug, 2016. After a routine briefing session at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation we took an overnight train to Dehradun. Early next morning we were driving past the Dehradun roads and were soon on a relatively quiet road to Uttarkashi. We spent an additional day at Uttarkashi to run around with copies of permits that we had already obtained from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and The Chief Wildlife Warden’s office, Uttarakhand. These were delivered at the offices of the forest department, police department, district administration and so on. Part of the team shopped for groceries, and packed. On 01 Sept, we drove to Gangotri. The air was finally clean and the heat almost lovable. On 02 Sept, after more paperwork at the entrance of the Gangotri National Park we were finally away to the mountains. In three days, with camps at Bhujbas and Nandanvan, we reached Vasuki Tal (4680 m) and established base camp. From the very next morning, we started carrying loads to a suitable advance base camp (ABC) site. After three days, the ABC, at an altitude of 5200 m on the lateral moraine of Sundar Bamak, was supplied with necessities as we acclimatized a bit more. While approaching the ABC I was reminded of the incident of the missing trekkers of Kalindi (2010) and showed my friends exactly where and how I found, in July 2011, the dead bodies of the eight trekkers (three from West Bengal and five from Uttarkashi). It was a silent reminder of how insignificant we are against the fury of nature, and death, among other things, is one of the easiest things to occur.
The view of Satopanth massif from Sundar glacier is one of the most breathtaking views I have ever had in the Indian Himalaya. The scale and grandeur of Satopanth simply dominates the canvas here. Once one takes the turn from Chaturangi glacier and drops down to Sundar Bamak, one enters the royal court of the mighty Satopanth. The description of the massif however has been given in a more matter of fact manner by Brig. Ashok Abbey (then Major), “When viewed from the head of the Sundar valley, Satopanth has a trapezium shaped near horizontal summit, with a prominent rock band on its north face. The east summit of the massif is 7075 m while the west summit is 7045 m. The ridge joining both the summits is almost 500 to 700 m long and runs from west to east, before finally taking a southeast direction, from a slight kink on the summit ridge. The north face of the mountain has two prominent ridges, the northeast ridge and the northwest ridge. The northeast ridge of the mountain, starting from Pt 7075 m is about six km long and peters out at Pt 5801 m, which is the northernmost point of the ridge. The ridge separates Suralaya Bamak from the Sundar Bamak. The northwest ridge is about two km long. Emanating from the west summit, the ridge drops to a col and then rises to a rocky pinnacle (Pt 6010 m), before joining the Sundar Bamak. The south face of the mountain has the southeast and the southwest ridges. The south face is bounded by the Swachand Bamak. The Suralaya Bamak lies to the east of the massif.”11
We had finally shifted to ABC from Vasuki tal on 09 Sept and in the next two days we established another camp, bringing us a bit closer to the beginning of the actual climb of the northeast ridge. This camp was at approximately 5350 m and was located on the true right lateral moraines of the East Sundar glacier. We found remnants of old camps here. On 12 Sept, Mahinder and I started working on gaining the northeast ridge. Keeping the East Sundar glacier’s icefall to our west, and after negotiating the yawning ‘randkluft’12, we started climbing the loose-rock step. From the base of the rock step we fixed four coils of static rope and returned to our intermediate camp at 5350 m with the news that the route to the col (5920 m) was now open. Next morning, Chandra and I volunteered to bring food and fuel from BC; while Lakpa and Christian did a ferry to the col. On 15 Sept, they moved up to the col on the northeast ridge and set up camp. They went pitch by pitch, belaying each other on the northeast ridge. They moved fast and light and by midday they reached the summit of Satopanth (7075 m). The heavily corniced summit ridge of Satopanth and Satopanth West was long and the undulations gave a false sense of height to the climbers. So they ended up traversing a few humps until they were satisfied that they had reached the highest of them all. It took seven hours from the col camp to get to the top and another five hours to get back to the safety of their tent. On 17 Sep, Aloke, Mahinder and Anindya moved up to the col and camped a little below to avoid high wind. The next morning, the three climbed to the col (5920 m) and climbed the unnamed ice pinnacle (6008 m) due north of the col and came back to the intermediate camp the same day.
The whole team was now united and merry. We had managed to climb a mighty mountain extremely lightweight and by using minimal support. We fixed rope only on the rock step. In total 800 m of static rope was fixed. The formidable northeast ridge was climbed alpine style. In addition to Satopanth, an unnamed peak (6008 m) was also climbed. Within a span of 10 days, two summits were climbed. What more can an alpinist want in order to be happy? Mummery’s comments were now making more sense than ever before.
Christian Ranke and Reinhard Friesinger (Germany), Rajeev Ranjan, Aloke Kumar Das, Lakpa Sherpa, Sayantan Datta (Liaison Officer), Anindya Mukherjee , Ratna Bhadaur, Mahinder Adhikari.
In September 2016, a small group of climbers from India and Germany climbed Satopanth (7075 m) and an unnamed 6008 m peak by traditional routes in semi alpine style and without using any fixed rope on its famous northeast ridge-north face route.
ANINDYA MUKHERJEE is an active mountaineer with a penchant for exploration. He has led and organized over 30 Himalayan expeditions and has quite a few first ascents to his credit. Apart from the Indian Himalaya he has climbed in Greenland, Iceland, Caucasus, Rwenzori, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Cascades, Yunnan, Swiss and French Alps. He is a life member of the HC.
Major Jay Prakash Kumar
The reply to the question why people climb to such heights is still unanswered and yet humans continue to push themselves beyond their limits to climb notorious peaks that have claimed the lives of many.
The First Attempt
Mt. Thalaysagar (6904 m) lies in the Gangotri group of peaks located in Western Garhwal Himalaya of Uttarakhand and is the second highest peak to the south of the Gangotri glacier. The Indian Army conducted its first expedition to Thalaysagar in 2015. Although the expedition was unsuccessful because of bad weather, it built a confidence and determination in the team so needed to scale the peak. Hence, a team of 24 experienced climbers led by Major Jay Prakash Kumar were shortlisted for a 2016 attempt. Two of its members, Havildar Sonam Thinlass and Naik Tashi Stanba reached on top and thus became the first summiteers from the Indian Army.
The Walk In
The team left New Delhi on 19 Aug 2016 and reached Harsil by road on 21 Aug. It then moved to the Gangotri road head camp and carried out numerous load ferries for stocking of the intermediate base camp at Kedarkhadak, five hours from Gangotri.
Approaching Kedarkhadak, the team came across herds of ibex and the first view of Mt Thalaysagar as a perfect backdrop. On 26 Aug the first party comprising three members i.e. Sonam Thinlass, Tashi Stanba and Pravendra Kumar moved and occupied IBC here. The remaining team members under the team leader also moved here with loads and returned to Gangoti after establishing the camp.
Five hours of trekking from Kedarkhadak, encountering fast flowing nalas, sliding zones, rock fall areas, meadows, loose scree and moraine, the team reached a beautiful lake at the bottom of the glacier - Kedartal, which is a magnificent camp site located at 4710 m. The first team of three members reached here on 28 Aug with porters and established base camp.
The team was divided into sub-groups Subedar Morup Dorjai led the route opening and rope fixing team, Maj Jay Prakash Kumar was in charge of climbing and support and Naik Mahesh Singh was for reserve and recovery.
C1 (5300 m), was a five-hour walk from BC along moraines, glacial streams, tarns and a majestic view of mountain ranges all around. Just near the camp site was an uphill climb with loose scree, boulders and glaciers on both sides. The route is not technical but dangerous because of rock gaps and glaciers and also tiring because of a long and arduous climb. Morup Dorjai, Sonam Thinlass, Sachin Kumar Thapa, Tashi Stanba and Deepak Kumar occupied C1 on 04 Sep at the same camp site which they had occupied the previous year. A glacier stream flowed nearby, so there was ample water supply.
The route to C2 was challenging – Initially there was a tiring climb of 50 m along an ice wall just adjacent to C1. Soon there was a vast snow field and glacier with deep dark crevasses, avalanche prone slopes, soft snow and a near vertical rock wall climb of approximately 800 m. Team 1 started route opening and rope fixing ahead of C1. Team 3 comprising Mahesh Singh, Parvender Kumar, Ankush Manhas, Rinzin Dorjai and Bhawani Singh, who had already arrived in C1 also helped team 1 in route opening. It took three days for the team to fix ropes for C2, which was located on a cliff face at 6018 m and was carved out from thick snow on a rock surface. It was a dangerous camp site. It took seven hours for the first team to reach here on 08 Sep.
In the meantime Team 2 comprising Maj Jay Prakash Kumar (Team Leader), Lt Ankit Sharma, Sukhvir, Mahipal Singh and Kewal Krishan moved from base camp and occupied C1 on 08 Sep. They were the reserve for the team ahead in case of any emergencies.
Ice-wall at Camp-I
The Indian Meteorological Department, had predicted bad weather (medium to heavy snowfall after 1200 hrs and wind speed over 40 km/hr) from 13 – 15 Sep. The team thus had four days to open C3, make a summit attempt and return at least to C1. The team leader had to decide whether to go ahead with the route opening and summit attempt or fall back till they got another window. It was decided to make use of the available window and move ahead for the summit attempt.
Working against all odds, Team 3 worked hard to open a route for C3 between. C3 was a five-hour climb from C2. The initial climb was tough, along a rocky surface, followed by a climb along the snow ridge line. The camp site was located along the southern ridge of the mighty mountain on a vast snow field at 6618 m. It was a beautiful location overlooking nearby mountain ranges and peaks. The wind chill factor was high here. The first climbing team reached here on 10 Sep 2016.
The first summit attempt
After resting for about an hour at C3, Team 1 moved to fix ropes for the summit while Team 2 occupied C2. From C3, the route to the summit was a vertical climb with a mix of rock and ice walls from the southern face of the mountain. They finally resurfaced, along the main spur coming down from the summit. Approximately 70 m below the summit there was a 90° vertical rock wall with an overhang and loose rocks. There is a prominent chimney climb to reach the snow cap on the summit. The summit ridge line of Mt Thalaysagar is extremely difficult as it has loose rocks, soft snow, a sharp ridge line, narrow approach and few options for the summit. Team 1 was able to fix 400 m of rope that day and was ready for the summit the next day.
The Indian Army’s first summit attempt to Mt Thalaysagar was made by Team 1 on 11 Sep. The most difficult part of the climb was the 70 m rock wall just below the snow cap on top. The two lead climbers, Sonam Thinlass and Tashi Stanba, did superb work on the vertical rock wall and climbed through the chimney but 37 m short of the summit, the weather turned extremely bad with high wind speed. The team was too tired to find an alternative route through the difficult rock wall under these deteriorating conditions.
The team leader directed the teams to return to BC to prepare for the second summit attempt. The teams were also rearranged.
17 Sep 2016 was a big day for the team. All conditions for climbing were perfect, so the team leader gave the summit team a green signal. The two lead climbers, Sonam Thinlass and Tashi Stanba went ahead along the summit ridge, climbed through the chimney and reached the cap stone. This time they took the right approach and negotiated a dangerous overhanging rock wall. The remaining three members belayed them from below. It was indeed a proud moment for the entire team and the Indian Army when the two climbers reached the top of Mt Thalaysagar at 9:00 a.m.
Summit camp of Thalaysagar at 6618 m
Tashi Stanba leading the summit attempt
Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit... is the answer to the mystery - why we climb.
An Indian army team of 24 experienced climbers led by Major Jay Prakash Kumar attempted Thalaysagar in 2016. Two members, Havildar Sonam Thinlass and Naik Tashi Stanba reached on top and thus became the first summiteers from the Indian Army.
MAJOR JAY PRAKASH has participated in 13 expeditions; has been a paratrooper, is a skydiver and foot soldier. He has served in various operational areas of North East and Jammu & Kashmir including Siachen glacier. For his contribution in the field of mountaineering, he was conferred with a Chief-of-Army-Staff Commendation Card in 2015.
A lasting memory for me is the imposing Ganesh 2 literally standing head and shoulders above the Tsum valley as a sentinel. Tsum was truly a stunning and soulful experience. What would the advancing road do to her, keep or break this spell? Only time will tell.
Tucked away in the Gorkha district in Nepal along the Shar (Siyar) Khola river bordering Tibet, is the little heard of Tsum valley, which was opened for trekking only as late as 2008. Often combined with the popular Manaslu circuit trek, between the villages of Ekla Bhatti and Nyak on the Manaslu route, a narrow trail heads eastwards high above and east of the Budhi Gandaki river, leading to this mysterious Beyul Kyimolung (the ‘holy hidden valley of happiness’ first described by Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century CE) ensconced between east of Manaslu and north of the Ganesh Himal range. The word Tsum comes from Tsombo, meaning vivid, which indeed it is. The people of this remote valley, the Tsumbas are of Tibetan origin and are engaged mainly in farming, livestock breeding and trade, almost entirely with Tibet. In recent years, they have adapted themselves to the Nepali ‘fooding and lodging’ culture and language and the whims and vagaries of international trekkers. So much so, that it is possible to do a very basic week long tea-house trek, which is what we did in Oct 2016 after our Manaslu trek. We started from the village of Dharapani, the current road head on the Annapurna - Manaslu circuit trail junction. Many parts of the trail and houses in Tsum valley and the Manaslu circuit were damaged by the 25 April 2015 earthquake, but the hardy locals have diverted the paths and built temporary bridges and tent shelters.
Trekking high above the Shar Khola which joins the Budhi Gandaki close to the Manaslu-Tsum trail junction, we passed, west to east, the major villages of Lakuwa (Lokpa, 2240 m), Chumling, Tanju, Kowa, Chhokang Paro (also called Chhekampar, the administrative headquarters of Tsum valley where permits are checked), Ngakyu, Lamagaon, Burji and Nile and finally to Mu gompa (3583 m) on the true right bank. On our return along the true left bank we trekked through the villages Chhule, Phurbe, Rachen Nunnery Gompa (established in 1905), Domje and Ripchet, crossing some very narrow canyon gorges on good suspension bridges before coming back to Lokpa after which we rejoined the main Manaslu trail to finish the rest of the Manaslu circuit trek at Soti Khola which is the current road head.
The initial trail from Lokpa to Chumling and further up to Chhokang Paro is steep, thickly forested and narrow with some exposed sections after which the upper Tsum valley suddenly broadens into a vast plateau right up to Nile, where the trail turns north to Mu Gompa. The most beautiful features of the Tsum valley were the patchwork scarlet fields of amaranth, unique long mani walls and numerous large chortens unlike those seen in other parts of Nepal that looked medieval (there are more chortens than people in the Tsum valley, goes the saying).
Ganesh Himal 2 as seen from Mu Gompa (Prakash Nuggehalli)
And there is the amazing range of peaks hemming the north and south of the trail, with Ganesh Himal 2 predominating as we headed to last settlement, Mu gompa, close to the border with Tibet. From here two well-trodden caravan trails used by the Tsumbas to trade with the Tibetans in Kyirong lead to two passes, the western Thaple Bhanjyang (5104 m) and the more popular eastern Mailatasachin pass (5093 m). Some trek almost to the pass but stay clear of the actual top as the Chinese outpost there objects to their presence and the Tsumbas definitely do not want this hassle. A motor road is under construction from this pass to Nile and beyond - this may change the ethos of this pristine valley eventually. Climbing above Mu Gompa through the alpine vegetation we also visited the Dephudoma nunnery, the oldest gompa (800 years) of the Tsum valley from where stunning views of Ganesh Himal 2 were seen. Other notable places seen were Milarepa’s cave near Burji (for the valley views more than the sacred footprint), a beautiful waterfall near Chhule, approach to which is forbidden by a curse to all locals except those from Chhule, an ancient large stupa with the all-seeing eyes before Chhule that transported us back in time and the ancient gompas at Chhule, Nile and Mu. Staying at the 1895 established slate roofed Mu Gompa and seeing the salmon pink sunrise light up the ‘head’ of Ganesh Himal 2, its two shoulders and its dribbling glacier oozing from the ‘head’ like the trunk of an elephant was some sight to behold.
Stupa near Chhule (Prakash Nuggehalli)
On the return leg, from Domje we took the very steep side trail to the nunnery Gumba Langdang (3340 m) which affords access to the Ganesh Himal north face base camp along the Torogumba (Langdang) glacier. The Ganesh Himal range comprises seven main peaks of which Ganesh 7 (6676 m) is totally in Tibet and the others are within Nepal or on the Nepal -Tibet border. Unfortunately, we had a whiteout here but in good weather the base camp offers a stunning ringside view of the north faces of Ganesh Himal 1 (Yangra, 7422 m), Ganesh 2 (7118 m), Ganesh 4 (Pabil, 7104 m) and Ganesh 6 (Lampu, 6908 m) which are roughly located in an inverted Y pattern with Ganesh 3 (Salasungo,7043 m) and Ganesh 5 (Lapsang Karpo, 6770 m) forming the tail. From the nunnery itself stunning views of Ganesh 1 and 2 can be had. While most treks and climbing expeditions to the Ganesh Himal peaks approach from their south or southeast faces, very few attempts are made from their north faces. Ironically, the numbers of the seven peaks do not match their heights. The name for the range comes from the Hindu deity Ganesh as a ridge on the south face of Pabil (Ganesh 4) resembles an elephant`s trunk. However, I think the north face of Ganesh 2 better ratifies the name. The range was first reconnoitered by HW Tilman and his team in 1950. The first ascents of Ganesh 1,2,3,4 and 5 have been made in 1955 (French- Swiss), 1979 (Japanese), 1981 (German), 1978 (Japanese) and 1980 (Japanese) respectively. Ganesh 6 is a sub summit of Ganesh 2 and its first ascent is claimed by a Japanese team in 20001.
Besides the Ganesh Himal peaks, other peaks seen on the northern range as we headed up the Tsum valley were the Chamar (7165 m) and Shringi Himal (7161 m), Langju Himal (6426 m) and the Puchen Himal (6049 m), the latter at the head of the Shar Khola valley, beyond Mu Gompa. On the southern side unfolded multiple 6000 m peaks of the Lumbo Himal and the Churke Himal range. Behind the cursed waterfall draining the Poshyop glacier rose the glistening Langpo Kangri (6648 m) and Kipu Himal (6110 m) and right above Chhule towered the triple crowned Pashubo (6177 m) and the Taya Himal range. In the western horizon seen predominantly on our return were the Boudhha Himal (6672 m), Himalchuli (7893), Ngadi Chuli (Peak 29, 7871 m) and Rani Peak (6693 m).
Ganesh Himal 2 close up (Prakash Nuggehalli)
As we retreated through potato, buckwheat, amaranth and barley fields where harvesting was in full swing, we were overrun by the feeling of how much we had seen in so small a valley in such a short time. Passing through the village of Ripchet was particularly poignant as most of the houses had been flattened by the earthquake. However, our hostess, in a homestay that was being rebuilt, cheerfully gave us a sack of potatoes and told us that that was lunch, dinner and breakfast! A lasting memory for me is the imposing Ganesh 2 literally standing head and shoulders above the Tsum valley as a sentinel. Tsum was truly a stunning and soulful experience. What would the advancing road do to her, keep or break this spell? Only time will tell. Until then, the indelible imprint of the long dzo and horse caravan trails heading to or returning from Tibet accompanied by the whistles, bells and the lilting voices and laughter of the herders shall linger on in our minds.
Prakash Nuggehalli and Lakshmi Ranganathan trekked in the Tsum valley section of the Manaslu circuit between 14 Oct and 20 Oct, 2016. Karma Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa supported them.
A biotechnologist by profession, LAKSHMI RANGANATHAN is a researcher at Novozymes, Bangalore. Every year she manages to break free from the busy schedules of corporate life to head to different parts of the Himalaya to follow her passion of travelling, trekking and connecting with the hill tribes. Her treks have taken her mainly to Nepal, Bhutan, Arunachal, Sikkim and Ladakh.
Vic and I had not climbed together since we did the Golden Pillar of Spantik in Pakistan in 1987. Over the intervening 29 years we had a boxing match in a seedy East London pub and intermittently kept in touch but essentially we went our separate ways…talk of a fresh trip together was born. It ended up that Vic and I, at 66 and 60, were back together in the mountains - 29 years after our Spantik experience.
“Blurghhh!” It was the middle of the night and Victor awoke with a start. He knew immediately what was wrong.
“I’m so sorry ...” he began. But it was too late.
The liquid in our water bottle was most definitely not the refreshing water that I had expected.
Up until this point I had been snoozing contentedly in our little tent at 5200 m sucking in as much thin air as possible ahead of our attempt on the unclimbed north face of Sersank (c 6050 m) in the Pangi valley area of the Indian Himalaya.
As I fumbled around to melt water to wash my mouth out and ignore the unappetizing taste of Victor’s urine I noticed that the stars were out. That at least was a positive. It had been snowing non-stop for several hours but now an improvement in the weather looked to be on the cards and that would greatly ease access to our planned climb.
It was British mountaineer, Martin Moran, who had prompted our interest in Sersank. He led a trek across the Sersank la in 2011 and wrote that the north side presented a ‘tremendous north face of linked white spiders.’ Victor and I knew Martin well enough to read between the lines. We contacted him, confirmed our suspicions and found our 2016 objective.
Vic and I had not climbed together since we did the Golden Pillar of Spantik in Pakistan in 1987. Over the intervening 29 years we had a boxing match in a seedy East London pub and intermittently kept in touch but essentially we went our separate ways; Victor became a mountain guide based in Chamonix and I stayed with my tax office job in England. And then, in 2015, a joint selection of our memoirs was published in France, a literary award was won and talk of a fresh trip together was born. It ended up that Vic and I, at 66 and 60, were back together in the mountains - 29 years after our Spantik experience.
The route up Sersank
Himalayan trips have changed a lot in 29 years. Back in the 1980s we freighted gas cartridges, spent hours in customs sheds, negotiated with porters and generally did everything ourselves. Now though gas cartridges can be bought in India, bigger baggage allowances to Delhi mean there is no need to freight kit and a plethora of in-country agents means that mountaineers can lay back and let others take the strain. We embraced the new world. Simplicity is all.
With logistics arranged through Kaushal, our ever reliable agent in Manali, our first job was a quick drop in to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi. Here we met Sanju, our Liaison Officer, and were subject to a mandatory briefing exercise. Mainly this involved officials staring intently at Victor and asking if we had a satellite phone. (Victor having been arrested and fined for using one a couple of years ago.) Denials complete, an air-conditioned 16-hour Volvo bus ride to the honeymoon town of Manali followed. Here we met Kaushal and Devraj our cook before boarding a mean vehicle called a Force Traveller for crossing the Rohtang pass into the heart of the Himalaya.
The Rohtang pass is just under 4000 m and enjoying a ‘snow experience’ on the pass has become outrageously popular for Indian tourists. Even out of season, the traffic queues were memorable. In spring Sanju told us that there is now a restriction of 800 taxis per day ferrying people to the snowline but before this limit was introduced the numbers reached 5000 – 6000 per day. Judging by the congestion with a lot less than 800 we could hardly imagine what 5000 – 6000 per day would have looked like.
The road signs on Indian Himalayan roads never cease to amuse me. As we zig-zagged up the pass we passed signs urging us to ‘Keep Nerves on Sharp Curves’ and pointing out that ‘Safety on Road (leads to) Safe Tea at Home.’ On the far side of the Rohtang, the atmosphere changes abruptly. A sign saying ‘last fuel for 365 km’ sums up the new remote feel. Downstream from here, in the Chenab gorge, the tarmac runs out and the road deteriorates fast. It took 12 hours or so from Manali before we turned away from the Chenab river into the Sural valley where, in line with so many of the valleys hereabouts, the road head has now been extended to the last village, Sural Butori.
From here mules were hired (and never turned up), porters were engaged and after a halting two days of slow walk and negotiation base camp was established in sight of the Sersank la and at an altitude of about 4400 m.
And then, after a day of rest and sorting, two days of getting our heavy sacks and us up the energy sapping screes to the col and a further day of descending the far side and traversing to a high vantage point, Victor and I were able to lie in the tent staring at the face we had come to climb and enjoy a robust discussion about differentiating between our pee bottle and our water bottle.
Our initial plan of accessing the face via a very steep chute was soon dismissed as too exposed to anything falling down the face. But, like minds spied a single safe line accessing the face via a buttress to the left. It would add a few hundred metres to the climbing and no doubt increase the time we would spend on the climb but the fact that we both homed in on it was refreshing. Like-minded thinking in the mountains is important and we had both wondered whether we would still felt the same way after 29 years apart. Our personalities have always been very different but by the time we were settled into our acclimatization routine the banter was flowing as freely as it did in the 80s (albeit with old man subject matter) and our mountain judgment looked as if it was in tune too. Already we were agreeing that it was great to be back in the mountains together.
Photographs gleaned from the internet suggested that the face can be very dry and dangerous in the summer and it was a relief to see that it appeared quiet and well frozen for us. It did though look distressingly steep.
Albeit with some trepidation we couldn’t wait to get going. First though we had to re-cross the Sersank la, drop down to base camp, sort ourselves out, fill our stomachs and then re-cross the Sersank la to the foot of the face. I could see that I was going to be quite weary of the steep screes of the pass by the time we had finished.
Four days later we had crossed the pass for the third time and were at the base of the buttress. Already I was being reminded of Victor’s wiry strength and enviable ability to plod through deep snow and carry huge loads at great speed. I had hoped that my fell racing efforts might have levelled us out in this respect but that appeared not to be the case.
The buttress was steep with powdery snow stuck to all but the very steepest rock. What looked to be straightforward from a distance was terribly precarious and painfully slow, involving clearing perhaps 15 cm of snow, hooking crampon points over rugosities in the rock and teetering upwards. It was not until early on our second day that the ground changed as we reached the knife edge crest of the buttress. The pitch that Victor led to get us to this point was a heroic performance that left me in no doubt that years of commercial expeditions have not dented the Saunders ability.
The way forward now was to traverse the sharp crest which sported intermittent overhanging walls on either side. It wasn’t the kind of ground that led itself to abseiling and if we should fail higher on the face it was clear that our descent would involve reversing these pitches followed by climbing back over the Sersank la. I very much hoped we were good enough to get up.
“My stomach is not feeling too good”.
It was at the end of our second day on the face that this problem first became apparent. By the end of day three, as we were being buffeted by spindrift in our precariously positioned tent, it was clear that it had worsened.
Being of slight build and with minimal blubber Victor likes to wear a lot of clothes both in his sleeping-bag and whilst climbing. We were testing various items of Berghaus clothing and Victor was wearing them all together. This meant that he was wearing five layers and a harness. Sadly, there was not enough time…
“What shall I do?” he asked no-one in particular. What with all the other layers, his harness and the need to be tied on at all times, simply taking them off was not easily possible.
“Cut them off” I announced unhelpfully being keen to both stem the flow of spindrift into the tent and generally see a quick resolution to the odorous problem that was playing out above my head.
“Great idea” said Vic producing an Opinel knife of the kind that I thought was only used for peeling vegetables.
For the rest of the night we lay with our own thoughts. The accumulation of spindrift was pushing the tent off the ledge but Vic’s predicament was a more serious problem for us both. Four days out from base camp and three days into the face it was not the best position to have this kind of difficulty.
Come the morning there was no improvement but Victor was irrepressibly positive.
“Looks brilliant ahead,” he enthused – “but can you lead the first pitch while I get myself sorted out?”
One of the great things about Himalayan north faces is that the temperature is always below freezing. The accident of the previous night was well frozen but ropes in particular had suffered and I did not envy Vic as he fought to feed them through his belay plate.
He was right that the climbing was becoming brilliant. The conditions on this upper part of the face were much better than lower down. It felt as if every pitch looked uncertain to begin with but turned out to be just about within our limits. The ice was a bit soft which meant our ice screws were less secure than we would have liked but progress was slow and steady. On this difficult ground it was interesting to note that I readily recognized Victor’s distinctive way of moving from 29 years before. He too commented that he instantly recalled my habit of resting my head against the slope when tired.
A fantastic day ended with us at a little snow crest where we were able to cut two small ledges, one above the other. Victor was still not feeling well.
“I think perhaps it is the dehydrated food,” he announced leaving most of his portion.
This was unfortunate as, aside from boiled sweets, we didn’t have anything else. It also struck me that Victor had told me that his usual weight is 59 kg (compared to my 70 kg) and our pre-climb blubber comparison had suggested that I had more reserves. As I boosted my calorific intake by polishing off his food, I couldn’t help but comment that even Victor wouldn’t be able to run on empty forever. The man himself though appeared not to be concerned.
“Not a problem. Perhaps it’s just the evening meals and the porridge for breakfast will stay down.”
Whatever the situation it was becoming increasingly clear that finishing the climb and descending the far side would be considerably easier than retreating down the face and re-crossing the Sersank la.
The porridge only partially stayed down and day five on the face proved both challenging and memorably fine. By the time we had solved the difficulties of the headwall and had the cornice in sight the Saunders body was surging forward. Where he found the energy from I do not know. Not once did he complain about a situation that would have ended the climb for lesser beings. At the age of 66, he is a truly remarkable man.
The cornice provided an acrobatic finale before, at 6 : 30 p. m. on our fifth day, we flopped out to a new panorama and the relatively amenable slopes of the southwest side of the mountain.
Hopes of being able to pitch the tent were quashed by hard ice just 20 cm down but a clear and cold night on nose to tail ledges saw us through to a perfect dawn and a lazy start. Unknown to us, Sanju and Devraj had their binoculars trained on us and were wondering why we were starting so late. In fact though there was no need to rush; just ahead was the 150 m summit pyramid and what we hoped would be a leisurely descent.
The summit pyramid itself had not been climbed. In 2008, a team of Japanese climbers and high altitude porters had reached it’s foot via the glacier systems to the southwest but they did not proceed further as local people had apparently asked them to leave the summit untouched. Knowing this beforehand we had quizzed locals at Sural Batori who assured us that they had no objection to us climbing to the highest point.
From the side we approached the pyramid it was not particularly difficult and by 1230 on our seventh day out from base camp we stood on the top and built a little cairn to mark our passing. The panorama of the Kishtwar, Pangi valley and Lahaul peaks was inspirational. Every time I stand on a summit in this area I seem to see exciting new objectives. It was a first for Victor in this area and he was like a playful puppy faced with an array of new chews.
It was left just to descend the glacier systems of the southwest side. Martin Moran had suggested the descent might prove easy. Let’s just say on that front he was wrong. After a day and a half of complex glacier travel, including several forced abseils through icefalls, we eventually escaped onto rocky ground and descended to a welcome tea meeting with Sanju and Devraj.
Three days later our porters had ferried our kit down to Sural Batori and we were ensconced in a local house watching satellite television. It seemed somehow fitting that Bear Grylls was on eating a variety of insects and drinking his own urine.
“Appears to be more refreshing than mine,” concluded Victor as Bear licked his lips enthusiastically.
All we have to do now is agree to a follow up re-union climb. There’s a lot to be said for them.
Two old friends climb together after a gap of 29 years and what else – enjoy. Btw, they also summit Sersank in Pangi valley.
MICK FOWLER worked for the British Tax Office for 39 years before retiring in January 2017. Within his annual holiday entitlement managed to visit the Greater Ranges many times since 1982 and climb numerous mountains that have given him great pleasure. He intends to continue in much the same vein in his retirement.
The Goddess Keeps Her Secret
George W Rodway and Anindya Mukherjee
Rising almost 2000 m above us, Rutledge’s ‘unreasonably dangerous and difficult’ wall left us awestruck. All we could see were hanging glaciers, icefalls, seracs, jutting cliffs and avalanche chutes. Could we climb it? No one yet had succeeded in doing so.
Locating a practicable route into the Nanda Devi sanctuary occupied a very respectable amount of exploration time and effort in the latter half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century. By the time WW Graham made spring and autumn journeys to Sikkim and spent the summer in the Kumaon region around Nanda Devi in 1883, a shift had just started towards looking to the Himalaya as a venue for sporting adventure. Graham and the Swiss guides that accompanied him that year planned an ambitious itinerary for their time in Kumaun. They attempted to penetrate, for the first time in recorded history, the Rishiganga gorge with an eye to ascending Nanda Devi. Not surprisingly, the difficulty of the gorge, not infiltrated to its source (after many attempts) until 1934, forced them to reconsider the wisdom of the project.
The English physician-explorer TG (Tom) Longstaff spent nearly 40 years exploring and climbing in the European Alps, the Caucasus, the Canadian Rockies, High Asia, and the Arctic, and was considered by many to be the leading mountain explorer of his era. Parties that Longstaff led in 1905 and 1907 made the next serious sojourns to explore approaches to Nanda Devi. In 1905, Longstaff and company initially explored the Pachhu glacier to its source under the northeast ridge of Nanda Devi East then crossed into the Lawan valley en route to a camp in the Goriganga valley. In early June, Longstaff and his companions reached a col (approx. 6463 m) on the Goriganga- Rishiganga watershed, one of the few spots where the wall of high ridges and peaks (exceeding 100 km in circumference) enclosing the Nanda Devi sanctuary dips below 6666 m. Here, they were to glimpse Nanda Devi’s south face and the southern glaciers of the sanctuary while they took an opportunity to briefly reconnoitre the south ridge of Nanda Devi East.
Longstaff returned to the Kumaun/Garhwal region again in 1907 with CG Bruce and AL Mumm, as well as several alpine guides and nine Gurkha soldiers from Bruce’s regiment. Mumm, incidentally, authored the now classic Five months in the Himalaya, A record of mountain travel in Garhwal and Kashmir after this expedition. They chose to first explore the area around the Rishiganga gorge but deep lingering snow from winter, along with rivers swollen with snow melt, complicated their endeavours. In late May, Longstaff and Bruce, accompanied by guides and Gurkhas, crossed the ridge between Dunagiri and Changabang to the Ramani glacier, a feeder to the Rishiganga. Unfortunately, incorrect maps failed to show the inner curtain ridge which cut them off from the base of Nanda Devi.
After a hiatus of nearly two decades, attempts to reach the Nanda Devi sanctuary resumed. In 1926 and 1927, a man who would subsequently lead two large-scale British Everest expeditions in the following decade made two journeys worthy of note into the Nanda Devi region. Hugh Ruttledge, Deputy Commissioner at Almora, was intent on being intimately familiar with every corner of his mountainous district. Howard Somervell (of Everest fame, 1922 and 1924), along with Colonel RC Wilson, accompanied Ruttledge in 1926 on a reconnoitre mission of Nanda Devi’s ring of peaks from the northeast. Their aim was to find a route into the inner sanctuary from the Bhotia village of Milam.
While this team did not have the resources for a protracted struggle, they were able to determine that very close inspection would be required of this geography in order to be able to force a pass over the ring of mountains with laden porters. In 1927, Ruttledge and his wife, along with TG Longstaff, paid another visit to Nanda Devi’s outer defences. Longstaff had, of course, searched for a weakness in the ramparts barring entry to the inner sanctuary of Nanda Devi 20 years prior to this venture. In a Geographical Journal article published the following year1, Longstaff gave Nanda Devi’s formidable defences full recognition :
The topography of Nanda Devi presents difficulties of access which I believe are unique. The mountain rises from the middle of an almost complete crater-like amphitheater of mountains whose walls are 20,000 ft high, which has neither been crossed nor entered by any human foot. On the east the highest peak rises abruptly from the end of a buttress two miles long and about 23,000 ft in height, which connects it with a separate mountain, Nanda Devi East, 24,379 ft. On all other sides it rises a sheer 10,000 or 12,000 ft from the glaciers which encircle its base. But this central “crater” is only part of another almost complete ring of mountains measuring a full 70 miles in circumference, from the crest of which spring a dozen measured peaks of over 20,000 ft., including Dunagiri on the north, Nanda Devi East, and on the south Trisul and Nanda Ghungti. For 60 miles of this distance there is no known depression below 17,000 ft.
After his retirement from government service in 1932, Hugh Ruttledge again sought to find a workable approach to the inner sanctuary of Nanda Devi. He returned to this problem with guide Emile Rey of Courmayeur and six Sherpas from Darjeeling. Reaching the head of the Sundardhunga valley near the end of May that year, they studied the southern section of the massive ring-wall around Nanda Devi just east of Maiktoli (approx. 7440 m). The section where the wall dropped to a saddle, the Sundardhunga khal (approx. 6033 m), was of special interest. However, the base of this saddle rose from a deep and steep valley which required further investigation. Ruttledge and his party thus went up the Maiktoli valley to get a closer look1 :
We were brought up all-standing by a sight which almost took our remaining breath away. Six thousand feet of the steepest rock and ice. Near the top of the wall, for about a mile and a half, runs a terrace of ice some 200 ft. thick. Under the pull of gravity large masses constantly break off from this terrace and thunder down to the valley below, polishing in their fall the successive bands of limestone of which the face is composed. Even supposing the precipice to be climbable, an intelligent mountaineer may be acquitted on a charge of lack of enterprise if he declines to spend at least three days and two nights under fire from this artillery.
And thus vanished the last hope for a straightforward approach to Nanda Devi. As Ruttledge wrote shortly after returning from the 1932 attempt, “the goddess keeps her secret.”
The next notable expedition into this area occurred in 1934, and its accomplishments were extraordinary. A few months after returning from the 1933 British Mt Everest expedition, Eric Shipton, with his old African climbing partner, HW Tilman, took it upon themselves to come to grips with the problem of approaching Nanda Devi’s inner sanctuary. This was to be a small, light party – Shipton, Tilman, and three Sherpa porters. The main objective of this venture was to gain entrance to and map the Nanda Devi basin inside the sanctuary, with the hope of also being able to reconnoitre Nanda Devi itself from close quarters. On the advice of Tom Longstaff, Shipton and Tilman directed their attention to the Rishi gorge approach. They frequently met precipices that looked impassable until a kindly fault in the rock allowed them passage, only to come to yet another barrier.
In a magnificent display of route-finding, the team passed the gorge in early June. Subsequently, nearly a month was spent exploring and mapping the basin. The magic of that moment is, for sure, hard to appreciate in these days of satellite photos, global position mapping, and with almost every corner of the earth explored. The elegant spire of Nanda Devi rose approx. 4333 m above the amphitheatre, where the two main rivers draining the basin joined. Herds of tame mountain sheep, bharal, grazed the moorland pasture where alpine flowers, wild onions, and rhubarb abounded.
After surveying the glaciers of the northern basin with the plain- table they had arduously packed in, the explorers withdrew as the monsoon advanced. However, they returned to the sanctuary in the autumn of 1934 for six weeks in order to complete the surveying and reconnaissance work in the southern half of the basin. Shipton and Tilman had decided to keep the sense of adventure high on this second trip by not retracing their steps back to civilization via the Rishi gorge, but to find an alternate route out of the sanctuary :
When we had left Joshimath it was with a mighty resolve not to return that way. We had so far burnt our boats as to send our remaining kit back to Ranikhet. We hoped to find a way out of the basin by the col at the foot of the south ridge of East Nanda Devi, on which Dr. Longstaff had stood in 1905 [i.e., Longstaff’s Col]. If we failed to do that we had a second string to our bow at the head of the southern branch of the glacier. In 1932 Mr. Ruttledge had gone up the Maiktoli or Sundardhungha valley with the intention of climbing the surrounding wall at that point and so gaining an entrance to the basin. It had not proved possible from that side, but he had told us to go and have a look at it, and it might prove less formidable from the opposite direction…We began by walking up the left (true) side of the eastern branch. It was very misty, but we saw enough of what we called ‘Longstaff’s Col’ to decide to leave it alone. It looked over 19,000 feet, and near the top, where it was very steep, we suspected ice. By now our boots were past their best, two of the Sherpas had no ice-axes, and we should be heavily laden2.
The team then moved up the southern glacier, soon identifying the col they believed to be the one suggested by Ruttledge (i.e., Sundardhunga khal). It looked about 6000 m and the approach was by an easy snow slope. Prior to exploring this option, Shipton and Tilman decided to reconnoitre the south ridge of Nanda Devi, one of their main objectives of this autumn return to the sanctuary. After following the ridge to approximately 6833 m and concluding “having seen all sides of the mountain we concluded that this offers the only possible route” (later ascended to the summit by Tilman and Noel Odell in 1936), they turned their attention to working out whether Ruttledge’s suspicions about this side of Sundardhunga were correct. On 17 September, they camped at the foot of the snow slope leading to the col. The ascent the next day to the top of the col was very straightforward, and only the heat of the day presented difficulties. The descent to the Maiktoli valley, however, was a different story :
After descending a few hundred feet we were stopped by an ice- fall. Dumping our loads we went forward to reconnoitre. On the left was a stone-swept gully, on the right some ice- swept slabs, and in the centre a very difficult icefall.
The party decided to return to their loads, set up camp for the night, and consider the route options the following morning. Upon resuming their descent the next day :
In an hour we had reached yesterday’s farthest point and were safely past some very unstable seracs. Below we twisted and dodged as before, encountering some steep pitches down which we lowered the loads… Ahead of us the glacier swept down with a last icefall, the steepest of all. On the right were some easy rocks, though separated from us by a 40-foot ice wall and a gully, the target of debris from the great ice terrace thousands of feet above.
Downward progress was slow - they decided to camp that afternoon some 1000 m above the Maiktoli glacier. From their camp, they could not see a way down, for the slopes they were on dropped precipitously out of sight. Once they got underway the next morning, the way became steeper and :
We groped our way in a thick mist expecting every moment to be stopped by a precipice. When it cleared a little we sent Ang Tarke on to reconnoitre, and, by a brilliant piece of route-finding, he spotted the only possible line down a place which appeared to us quite hopeless. We reached the level glacier at 2 p. m., close to the foot of an icefall, and found a stone shelter used by shepherds.
The wall Ruttledge had declared unreasonably difficult and dangerous to ascend in 1932 had now been descended. Many years would pass until another party attempted to traverse this ground, only this time the intent was to actually ascend the wall to Sundardhunga khal.
It was end of May, 2015. An overnight train from Howrah had brought us - Mrinal Ghosh, Dignata Roy Chowdhury, Lakpa Sherpa and Anindya Mukherjee - to the oldest train station in Delhi. Our friend, George W Rodway, had flown into Delhi from the United States the day before. The rendezvous took place just outside the station building. George, Lakpa and Anindya were meeting after a year to the day since their last reunion in Delhi. Memories of Nanda Devi East from 2014 were still fresh in their minds. After a series of load carrying over flights of stairs of adjoining platforms, we boarded another train and eight hours later, we were in the relative quiet and cool of Kathgodam. The next morning we started a six-hour drive to Bageshwar.
After a day in Bageshwar to take care of some last minute shopping and packing we drove to the road head. Ballu, our friend from Jatoli, was waiting there for us and within half an hour all our duffels were loaded atop mules and we were ready to hike the first few kilometres of the trip to our shelter for the night. We stopped in a small guesthouse that overlooked the picturesque village of Khati and decided to spend the night there. Later that afternoon we went for a stroll through the terraced fields of Khati and paid a visit to a forest bungalow built in 1890.
Over the next two days, leaving the Pindar river valley to our east, we proceeded northwards, spending a night each in Jatoli (2438 m) and Kathaliya (3206 m). Kathaliya is where Sukhram nala meets Maiktoli nala and out of their confluence emerges the Sundardhunga gad (Garwali/Kumauni for river). All along the trail, right from the road head, we noticed scars on the mountains, made by massive landslides, the legacy of the 2013 Uttarakhand cloudburst. Beyond Kathaliya we followed the narrow Maiktoli river gorge. The river itself was still frozen and offered a gentle, uphill approach to the upper valley of the Burh glacier. As soon as the gradient of the frozen but cascading river flattened, we settled down in our base camp (3600 m), near an old shepherd camp. The date was 6 June 2015 and Maiktoli and Panwali Dwar loomed over us like two giant sentinels of the Devi. Their connecting ridge stood before us like an ominous and formidable ‘thus far and no further’. Our eyes, however, were glued to the central part of the ridge that connected those two peaks. We were trying to locate the lowest point on the ridge, the Sundardhunga khal. Rising almost 2000 m above us, Rutledge’s ‘unreasonably dangerous and difficult’ wall left us awestruck. All we could see were hanging glaciers, icefalls, seracs, jutting cliffs and avalanche chutes. Could we climb it? No one yet had succeeded in doing so.
As the first couple of days of awe faded, we busied ourselves by reconnoitering for a feasible line up that wall and getting acclimatized.
In order to have a clear and direct view of the wall across the valley and to find a safe route on it, we set our eyes on the Baljouri col first. We thought this ascent was a vantage point for detecting a route up the Sundardhunga khal, and gave us an opportunity to acclimatize, too.
Baljouri col is located on a ridge extending north to south between Panwali Dwar (6663 m) and Baljouri peak (5922 m). To its east is Buria glacier and to its west, the Burh glacier. On 8 June 2015, we followed the semi-frozen glacial stream coming from the Burh glacier, crossed it and continued up its true left. We met the moraine ridge coming from the direction of Baljouri col and started going upslope and over old snow. It was not great going on the soft snow. The reason probably was the low altitude and high temperature.
We learnt that it had snowed quite heavily in this region (30 deaths were reported in Bageswar due to heavy snow in December 2014). But in June 2015 and at this altitude range (3600-4500 m) snow conditions were very soft, even in very old snow, due to the temperature. A couple of hours of struggle through the slushy snow and about a 500 m altitude gain brought us to a suitable spot for a camp. We were right at the foot of Baljouri col and a close look at its approach did not seem encouraging at all. There was fresh avalanche debris on the obvious climbing line and the prevailing snow conditions were indicating that further slab dislocations could occur at any time. So, the next morning we decided not to try and ascend Baljouri col and dedicated ourselves to scrutinizing the Sundardhunga wall instead.
The route to ascend the Sundardunga khal from the south
The wall presented us with a few interesting revelations. Due to the topography (and being a south face that tends to get more sun in this part of the world) slushy soft snow was not an issue there. What we saw instead was a wall ornamented with rock buttresses and additionally containing series of hanging glaciers near its top. We realized that the wall had much less snow than would have been ideal. Any solid rock looked about the grade of E (and therefore beyond us to consider) and the gullies looked rather thin and lean. We agreed that it would have been nicer to have a bit more snow cover in the gullies linking the ice fields. We were able to identify the possible line of descent of Shipton and Tilman in 1934. It did not take us long to rule out using that line as our line of ascent. The glacier that the duo had descended has deteriorated and is broken, and any ascent of this line would have involved tremendous good luck to avoid getting swept down by a broken serac. So, we had to discover a safe and original line, but we needed a new vantage point. We retraced our steps down to base camp and decided to climb the slope directly west of BC in the hope that this angle might reveal more of the terrain and give us renewed hope. We were not wrong. After climbing a few hundred metres, the whole of the Sundardhunga khal wall opened up before us like a wide canvas and a thin line of interlinked gullies raised our hopes. We spotted a possible line up the wall and it looked safe from apparent avalanche danger.
From 10 to 12 June, 2015, we started working on the wall. We had an ABC (4100 m) ready and occupied in a couple of days, a few hundred metres up the wall itself. It was a safe enough camp, overlooking the bending spread of the Burh glacier below. On those three days, the mornings were clear. Afternoons had a drizzle or some snow. We used that to our advantage and could progress up the gully system and even make a high camp on a ledge after climbing about 500 m above the ABC.
George tackling the vertical grass above ABC
View looking up from near our high point
From 13 June, the weather changed. Thunderstorms came and continued for the next couple of days, giving us a proper soaking and a heavy coat of fresh unstable snow on the entire face. 16 June was a clear day again, but by that time the snow on the gullies was completely untrustworthy and we were aware of the heightened chance of slab avalanches with these conditions. We decided to retreat. By 17 June, we were all safely down in base camp.
We learnt that seasonal temperatures dictate that anything below 6000 m in the Uttarakhand Himalaya is too warm for safe or comfortable snow conditions. A late autumn attempt (October- November) may ensure firmer snow and more stable weather. We also learnt that it is now unreasonable to ascend the descent line of 1934 due to hanging seracs. We found a possible alternative and safe line of ascent and did actually climb up to 4600 m on the wall itself. We also learnt that it was well within our abilities to climb the south face of the Sundardunga khal. Perhaps there will be a next time.
Until then, the Goddess gets to keep her secret.
An attempt to follow the Eric Shipton – Bill Tilman route in reverse. Shipton and Tilman descended a wall from the Nanda Devi sanctuary to the Sunderdhunga khal; Anindya, George and their team tried to climb it.
GEORGE W. RODWAY, PhD, represents a combination of scientific researcher, mountaineer, and science writer. An Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California, Davis (USA), his academic work focuses on the cardiopulmonary response to hypoxia, and it has on occasion presented him with the opportunity to climb mountains with scientific intent. He serves international organizations as well such as the International Society for Mountain Medicine and the Medical Commission of the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA).
Read about ANINDYA MUKHERJEE on page 302 of this Volume.
… we arrived at the lowest col between Nangamari I and II at 6:00 a.m. The temperature was low before sunrise. A divine and overwhelming panorama of the mountain range from Makalu to Chomolungma of Tibet spread in the west. To the left, Nangamari II was soaring high.
This is not a record of outstanding extreme climbs but a story of having successfully led all members of the team to the first ascent of a 6000 m peak in the Kangchengjunga region in easternmost Nepal, and paid homage to late Tamotsu Ohnishi, a pioneer of explorations in the Nepal Himalaya.
Road to Nangamari
As one of the major events to commemorate its 80th anniversary in 2016, the Kansai section of the Japanese Alpine Club (JAC) decided to send an expedition to the Himalaya. In 2005, the Kansai section dispatched an academic mountaineering team to western Tibet. They made the first ascent of the north ridge of Pachyung Ham (6529 m) and the southeast face of Gyang Dzong Kang (6123 m) as well and further successfully conducted a survey for unveiling the mystery of a Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi’s route to have crossed the border in disguise heading for forbidden Tibet1
In 2013, we had a series of discussions with Tamotsu Ohnishi (leader of the 2005 expedition and a pioneer – scholar of the Nepal Himalaya), and the unclimbed Nangamari I (6547 m) in eastern Nepal was the chosen objective of the 80th anniversary expedition. The area around the Nangamari mountains was once visited by a Japanese, Bunkyo Aoki, who crossed Tipta la (5095 m) southwest of Nangamari and entered Tibet in 1912. Aoki arrived at Shigatze by way of Nepal in September.
In June 2013, the JAC Kansai 80th Anniversary Overseas Mountaineering Project was organized. In 2014, expedition members were selected, through publicity, from the Kansai section.
In late October 2013, however, Ohnishi, who had been nominated as the expedition leader, went through an operation for cancer, and passed away in September 2014. Besides, to our disappointment, Nangamari I was climbed by a party from Switzerland in November 2014. Our main objective was no longer a virgin summit. We were forced to amend our plan to first ascend Nangamari II and traverse to Nangamari I.
Three days were spent on checking gear, equipment and supplies sent from Japan or procured in Kathmandu. We brought tents, climbing gear and foods for high altitude and bought fix ropes, mattress and oxygen gas bombs in Kathmandu. About 2.5 tons of 80 packages were carried to Taplejung by chartered bus.
Nangamari Map (Nepal)
The caravan smoothly made headway to Ghunsa. Because of the monsoon, we did not come across other climbers and trekkers, but en route, heavy rainfall had caused landslides here and there. The road along Tamor nadi was full of leeches which bothered us a lot. On the 6th day, our caravan reached Ghunsa, the base for our climbing activity. The following day was for rest. We bathed, the lamas prayed for our safety, we tested the satellite communication and we prepared to set up our base camp. Porters employed at Taplejung were sent off duty. Instead, 36 yaks carried almost all the loads from Ghunsa. On the next day, we started onward to base camp. To our regret, Nangamari was not seen from Nango la and Marson la because of the daily rain. We had to stay one day in a very remote village, Yangma, as the previous day’s snowfall hindered the yaks from moving farther. We were worried and irritated, wondering when the monsoons would cease.
We headed northwest from Yangma along Pabuk Khola and stayed one night in Kharka above Chheche Pokhari. We set up base camp on 29 September in Kharka (4800 m) about two km downstream of Nangama Pokhari. As the lake was surrounded with steep cliffs formed by erosion due to glacial receding, we had to locate the base camp in the Kharka, downstream, at the lower end of the lake. Thus, C1 and C2 were set up lower than planned and loads had to be relayed by members.
On the 30th, we sorted climbing and camping gear and food to be used in the upper camps. Some members suffered from effects of altitude. Our final C1 was set up midway between the original C1 and C2.
We made headway on the upper end of river terrace and ascended a ridge to 5209 m, where there was a water stream. We made a temporary C1 there and deposited our loads.
Ascending from wide snow plateau toward Nangamari II
We were climbing at a good pace till 2 October, after which the situation changed. Our members fell ill – Iwai had high fever and Matsunaka serious edema. They went back to Yangma. Meanwhile, the load relay and reconnaissance continued. But the two members in Yangma did not recover so they were sent to Kathmandu. We continued load relay to the upper deposit point (5450 m) and paved a route to set up C2. The following day there was fine weather, but the excessive work deserved a rest day.
Iwai returned to Yangma from Kathmandu by a helicopter and came to C1. On 15 October, C2 was set up. The next day, we headed to Nangamari II, but as the temperature rose, there was an increased danger of avalanches. We returned from 5880 m. In the far distance, we sighted the glittering Kangchengjunga and Kumbha Karna (Jannu) to the east.
We left C2 at 02:00 a.m. The highest point we got to on the previous day was reached in two and half hours and we arrived at the lowest col between Nangamari I and II at 06:00 am. The temperature was low before sunrise. A divine and overwhelming panorama of the mountain range from Makalu to Chomolungma of Tibet spread in the west. To the left, Nangamari II was soaring high.
Two young members departed earlier to open the route and fix ropes, two members supplied ropes and snow-bars and the last five members followed. We chose an easy snow slope, making our steps toward the summit. We finally reached a col between the north peak and south peak (main peak) and then ascended a knife ridge with utmost care. We climbed the ridge, paying attention to a cornice hanging over the right side (west side). All nine members stood atop Nangamari II at 12:37 hours (local time). As clouds had gathered during our ascent, visibility was lost. The summit was a fragile ridge so we could take pictures only in awkward positions whilst clinging to the ridge.
Nangamari I and ascending ridge to Nangamari II
There was no reason to stay longer as more than 10 hours had passed since we had left camp. We descended down the steep slope and returned to the col at 16:11 untying ropes. We safely arrived at C2 and on the following day, all the members came down to the base camp. We enjoyed fine weather on our return caravan and could view Nangamari from the passes en route. On 24 October, we piled a tall kern in which we buried the bones of Tamotsu Ohnishi and we said goodbye to Nangamari.
Nangamari II (left), Nangamari I
Everest and Lhotse
The first ascent of Nangamari II, 6029 m by the JAC Kansai 80th Anniversary Expedition 2016 in Eastern Nepal and homage to late Tamotsu Ohnishi, a pioneer of explorations in the Nepal Himalaya. The article has been translated and supplemented by Tom Nakamura.
TSUNEO SHIGEHIRO is a 68 year old Japanese mountaineer who is famous for making the first ascent of the North face of Everest and scaling Namcha Barwa among other peaks.
We were all exhilarated. We could see Kalindi pass right across and a host of peaks like Satopanth, Chandra parbat, Chaukhamba, Janahut, Parvati, Mana, Kamet, Mukut, Saraswati. Some snacks later, we all headed back down to base camp.
Trekkers approaching Saraswati col at the head of Mana glacier
The allure of a high altitude trek is that it challenges the mind and body. The allure of an exploratory high altitude expedition is altogether different, in that it challenges and satiates the mind, body and soul.
In 2008, a chance meeting with a group of trekkers on the Shastratal Mayali pass trek encouraged me to lead exploratory treks. Auden’s col and the Panpatia col treks followed. More invaluable was the company of Sankar Sridhar, renowned photographer and adventure lover, which eventually paved the way to plan the climb up the Arwa col with him. During this phase, we realized that the Arwa col is as elusive now as it was in 1939, when JB Auden first attempted to locate the col.
The only recorded exploration in the Mana Gad valley after JB Auden was by a team led by Harish Kapadia in May 1990. This team went up to Saraswati col which lies about 2.2 kms NE of Arwa col and is at the east end of the southeast branch of the Mana glacier. They did not have the necessary permit to cross the Saraswati col and hence turned back to Nilapani. Their report turned out to be the most useful resource for us.
With help from Mr Kapadia’s expedition report, Google Earth and numerous maps of the region, I started to plan the exploration. I found most of the trails and campsites quite accurate when we actually got on to the terrain.
But it wasn’t until June 2016 that we embarked on this five-years-in- the-making plan. An unexpected access to Nelang valley meant less cumbersome permission to embark on this epic attempt. Raymond Shaw and Ranu Kwatra, provided the much needed commercial viability to the project. A team of mountain guides - Tashi, Mohan and Harish Rana, meant we had a strong backbone. We were supported by an efficient crew of cooks and porters.
We not only got to Arwa col, but also went up the Mana ridge at three different points – Arwa col, Arwa col 2 (as marked on my GPS) and Saraswati col. The location and altitude of Arwa col was exactly where JB Auden had predicted. It is unbelievable that explorers from almost three quarters of a century ago knew the mountains so well, equipped with only a map and compass!
Had it not been for our porter loads, I think we would have given descending down the Arwa col a shot. I would like to get back someday to cross the Arwa col into the Arwa glacier.
We scanned the whole area on the Mana ridge seeking the elusive crossing from Mana glacier to Arwa glacier. Point 30/ 57.715’; 79 / 18.600’, exactly at 6100 m, is where Arwa col was marked by JB Auden. It is possible to cross over from this point but one would need to fix at least 200-250 m of rope to get down.
Getting to Arwa col was just one leg; we still had to cross over to the Alaknanda watershed. Our backup plan, to use Saraswati col in case we were unable to descend from Arwa col, helped us as we had to adopt that route. We split into two teams. While one team went up to Arwa col, the other (Mohan and Harish) went up and across the Saraswati col to locate a safe route. We managed to go up to Arwa col, come down to Arwa col base camp and then go up the Saraswati col and across it in a single day. Not being able to find a safe descent across the Mana ridge would have meant that we would have had to retrace our steps and head back towards Nilapani, which was a long walk. Venturing into unknown territory made us feel like real explorers. Besides, we had excellent weather throughout the expedition.
After clearing the Forest Dept check-post at Bhaironghati, we took the road towards the Jadh Ganga valley. The stunning scenery reminded me of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. After about an hour we reached Nelang, the biggest army base in this valley. In about an hour we reached another army base called Naga, at the confluence of Jadh Ganga and Mana gad. The two valleys meet each other roughly at a right angle – Jadh Ganga flowing in from the north and Mana gad coming in from the east. After clearing the customary checks, we reached Nilapani at 12 : 30. We crossed Nilapani gad by an aluminum ladder left behind by the army personnel, and pitched camp. Close to camp we spotted pug marks on the sand and were told by the soldiers that two leopards had been sighted there a couple of weeks earlier. Curious about what lay ahead, Sridhar and I headed walked up the Mana gad. After a couple of hours of walking along the right bank, we could see a trail going up on the other side which meant that the river needed to be crossed somewhere upstream.
After 15 minutes of walking the next morning, we had to climb down a big rock to get on to the river bed. At 11 : 30 a.m. we saw a loose wire across the river set up by the army, probably used to ferry loads with the pulleys. We set up camp on the flat ground above the river-bed on the other side. After lunch, Mohan and I went up ahead to scout, all the way to the point from where we could see the wide river-bed of Tridhara and the Mana gad valley joining in from the south.
Thirty minutes into the climb on the slope above camp, the walk on the next morning became quite flat. After negotiating tricky scree with a steep drop to the river on the left, it was a gradual climb up to a meadow. There was a helipad and a trickle of water nearby. I marked this point on the GPS as Mana helipad. This place can be used to camp on day 1 even if it means a 550 m height gain from Nilapani. A further walk and descent later the wide bed of Tridhara was visible. The Tridhara campsite is an hour’s walk from the Tridhara river bed. Since Tridhara was a wide open valley it was windy, Mana Gad seemed better protected from the winds. This was probably the Leopard Camp described in Mr Kapadia’s report.
While the team took a rest day, Mohan and I went up looking for possible campsites for the following day. We crossed many side streams and negotiated huge boulders on this climb. We decided to camp on the river left next to the glacier (coming from Sri Kailash).
Porters crossing a snowfield after descending from the Saraswati col. The mountains covered by clouds are Sarasawati I, Saraswati II & Chamrao parbat
The snout of the Mana glacier seemed close by so we went up a little further. We could not make good progress on the moraine and decided to return the following day.
The last trace of humans in this valley was next to our campsite - signs of a shepherd’s camp. I decided to go down to the river-bed to avoid the boulder terrain. The river bank offered a better route to walk on places where it was frozen. We reached camp at lunchtime. Mohan and I went up the left bank of Mana gad beyond the snout of the glacier, which was huge and filled with crevasses. Crossing the glacier high up above the snout would have meant an extremely long day and we were still not sure if we would find a place to camp. The glacier itself was quite wide. We turned back and reached the campsite by 6 : 30 p. m. We decided that we would cross the river near the camp and follow the right bank of the glacier.
We walked down a frozen bank of the river and then hopped over some boulders to cross the Mana gad. The climb was steep but we were quite sure that this would be easier than the left bank which seemed longer as the glacier was turning right. There was a side glacier coming in from the right bank and we hoped to get some water on that side. We got to the top of the side glacier and could only see endless moraine. The side glacier coming in from the right did not carry any water; the melt only made our feet sink in. We saw a couple of small glacier lakes nearby. I decided to camp as there was no sign of water anywhere further. Mohan and I tried to find a route up the Mana glacier. We could not reach the Mana glacier but were high up on the lateral moraine on the right bank and could see the ice surface on the glacier below us. The imagery for this section was not very clear on Google Earth hence I had little idea about the terrain here. What seemed like an easy gradient from the contours of the map had changed completely due to the presence of moraine. The route from the glacial lake camp to the Mana glacier ice surface turned out to be one of the toughest days of this expedition.
We left camp early, crossed the side glacier and walked on the lateral moraine the whole day. 3.5 hours later we came across a stagnant, muddy water pool being fed by a small trickle. This could possibly be a place to camp.
We reached the side of the Mana glacier at 3 : 00 p. m., exhausted. This was one of the most beautiful camps as we had the huge Mana glacier right ahead of us and we could see it as far as Saraswati col. On our right the massive Mana ridge stood like an ice fortress. The next day would be a rest day but Mohan and I planned to go all the way up to Arwa col the next morning.
We set off at 5:00 a.m. The crisp glacier was nice to walk on. It was lovely watching the sun come up on the Mana ridge. On reaching the foot of the Mana ridge around 8:00 a.m., it seemed we would have to negotiate a crevasse to get to the top. Mohan pointed out to another point on the ridge a little on the west - it seemed like an easier slope to climb. It took us about an hour to get to the top - towards the end the slope was quite steep and icy and had an icy cornice. It required me to use all my crampons and ice-axe skills to get to the top of the ridge. It turned out that this point at 6137 m was higher than the Arwa col. I marked it as Arwa col 2 on my GPS. The other side was a steep descent down to the Arwa glacier. It did not seem like a good slope to go down on. We turned back at 11:00 a.m. - many streams had started flowing on the surface of the glacier by then making it slushy. We reached camp by 2:30 p.m., completely exhausted.
I asked Tashi to go with Harish to the other point which we had marked as Arwa col on our Google Earth images. They would leave early in the morning to check if we could cross over the Arwa col or exit via the Saraswati col. The rest of us would move camp to the base of Arwa col.
Our plan for 5 June worked out perfectly. Tashi and Harish reached camp soon after us with pictures taken from the Arwa col and we discussed possibilities. It seemed doable but we were not sure so we decided against descending into the Arwa glacier. We would certainly have had to fix the ropes on the descent and we did not have crampons for the porters.
So the plan for the next day was that Ranu, Ray, Sridhar, Tashi and I would go up to Arwa col and the porters would stay back at camp. Mohan and Harish would go up to Saraswati col to find a safe route across. If they could not find a route across, the plan was to retrace the steps back to Nilapani.
Within 20 minutes of leaving camp, Sridhar’s ankle problem from a recent fracture resurfaced so he turned back. Negotiating a crevasse, we got up to the top - it was nice and sunny. We were all exhilarated. We could see Kalindi pass right across and a host of peaks like Satopanth, Chandra parbat, Chaukhamba, Janahut, Parvati, Mana, Kamet, Mukut, Saraswati. Some snacks later, we all headed back down to base camp. Mohan descended down the obvious gully on the other side which ended up as an overhanging slope.
Realizing he was stuck, he started traversing the mountain on the left and climbed some daunting rocks to get down to the parallel snow gully looking for a route. Mohan found some old yellow rope stuck in the ice; he had obviously found the route. With this go-ahead all of us headed to Saraswati col reaching in an hour. We could see the Saraswati valley below and the road too. We would soon be in the Alaknanda watershed. This is the road which goes up towards Mana pass. We could see the brown mountains of the Tibetan plateau and knew that we were not far from the Chinese border. We camped close to a water body at the edge of the snow ground.
Finally on reaching Joshimath, we celebrated to culminate the completion of an epic trip.
Avilash Bisht and his team trekked to Arwa col and then successfully crossed Saraswati col (5941 m) on 6 June 2016.
AVILASH BISHT has been guiding trekking/ mountaineering trips to the Himalaya since 1997. He enjoys exploratory trips and climbing expeditions the most. He has guided mountaineers to the summits of Kun, Satopanth, Kedar dome, Sudarshan parbat, Bandarpunch, CCKN, Kangyatse, Dzo Jongo, Stok Kangri, Mentok Kangri, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Elbrus and many lesser mountains. He is a co-founder of White Magic Adventure Travel, a company specializing in high altitude treks and climbs.
Garhwal Treks Article 1 Two is a Company - Explorations & Climbs in Mana Gad 1990
Saraswati col was first reached by a team of Harish Kapadia and Monesh Devjani in 1990. See their details, photos and panorama in HJ Vol. 47, p. 48
For location Arwa col, see HJ Vol. 47 p. 49.
HJ references to all expeditions to the Arwa valley and col are as under: Arwa Valley - exploration of, 4 35; glaciers of, 6 157; journey down, 15 90; climbs in, 25 87; ascents in, 53 72, 96; trek to, 54 73
An Alpine style attempt on Peak Lenin
Athol Jake Preston and Anindya Mukherjee
All big mountains are potentially dangerous; like fast cars they must be treated with respect. Yet if one uses common sense they can be traversed and enjoyed with impunity. The two popular ranges ...the Caucasus and the Pamir, are high and subject to violent storms. Also being marooned in a vast land mass they can be grippingly cold.
– Hamish Macinnes
“In 1974 the objectives were ambitious-nothing less than an alpine- style climb up the East Face of Peak Lenin1 (7134 m) seemed satisfactory, with all the seriousness and difficulty of commitment at high altitude”. – Paul Nunn2
“Let the storm rage louder!” – V. I. Lenin3
A Stormy Background
Yes there was a storm on Peak Lenin in 1974 and it was quite deadly. Elvira Shateava, along with seven other women, climbed the mountain in the hopes of completing a traverse – up the Lipkin ridge to the 7134 m summit, and then down the Razdelny. On 5 August, 1974, eight of them reached the summit. And then came the storm that engulfed them. They radioed base camp for approval to sleep up there. Vitalie Abalakov, the base camp in charge ordered the ladies to start descending. They stuck rigidly and bravely to their planned traverse in ferocious weather. Eventually they did start to descend after their tents were destroyed by the winds and they had no shovels to dig a snow cave. For 22 hrs, while attempting to descend in a horrible storm, one climber after another perished from exposure, until they had all died. Paul Nunn, member of the British Pamir Expedition that joined the international meet of mountaineers4 on Peak5 Lenin; had to leave their base camp along with other climbers in an attempt to reach and rescue the doomed team of eight women climbers. Paul Nunn later wrote, “In the late afternoon the final slopes to the ice cave at 17500 ft were swept by a cold but relatively innocuous Lenin wind. In its depths, still several thousand feet below the plateau, the report of events above was received. Everyone was now in retreat, with Americans coming back by the Lipkin, Siberians far on the descent of that route, and the beleaguered camp 2 on the Razdelny relieved by John Evans and others from the American party. There was not a lot more to be done by us - in death it became a domestic tragedy.”
Years later, on 13 July 1990, an earthquake triggered an avalanche that wiped out Camp II on the Razdelnaya route. 43 climbers out of the 45 present there, perished. This accident still stands out ominously to be the worst accident in mountaineering history6.
However the recent history of disasters on Peak Lenin did not quite dampen our spirits and we decided to have a go at the mountain unsupported, lightweight and in alpine style. Today, there are 16 established routes on Peak Lenin. Nine of them are on the southern side and seven on its northern slopes. The peak is quite popular with climbers due to its easy access and uncomplicated routes. Considering the existing infrastructure and established BC/ABC locations, there are three most attractive routes from the North (i.e. the Kyrgyzstan side) : Lipkin’s rocks route and NE ridge; the classic North Face route; the route via Razdelnaya peak and the NW ridge. In August 2016, for us two friends climbing the north-west ridge (standard route via Razdelnaya top) of Peak Lenin, unsupported and in alpine-style seemed like a satisfactory enough objective. After all, we both agree on one philosophy. Climbing is for enjoyment and not for death-dicing thrills. We however had one more special goal on this trip - meeting people and making friends.
Approaching the Mountain : Bishkek (800 m) to base camp (3600 m)
After a short flight from Bishkek to Osh, we boarded our connecting mini-bus. We had fresh baked golden wheels of ‘lepyoshka’ flat bread - the hot, slightly salty tandoori flavours were very welcome. Leaving Osh, the scenery was monotonous Central Asian steppe. Apart from the ubiquitous poplars by the waterways, it was a treeless landscape dotted with farm houses and yurts. Lunch at one such location was a welcome stop, for stomachs and bladders. Deep-fried ‘boorsok’ mini- bread, yoghurt and a light salad of tomato and cucumber was the fare. In the midst of swirling mists and chilled temperatures we stopped at a mountain pass of 3000 m or so and caught fleeting glimpses of the snow-clad giants about us. Hours later our Latvian companion Oleg announced, “here road ends”, as the bus veered left and down a rugged bouncy track, under a faded arch of rusting metal which proclaimed the entrance to Pik Lenin National Park, and over a rumbling bridge. For the next few hours we jolted, bounced and swayed across the rolling grassed moraines until an encampment of canary yellow tents blurted out from the otherwise muted watercolours and leaden sky. It was without a doubt, the biggest and most well-appointed base camp (or camp of any type) that we had ever seen. Every tent even had electricity! The gigantic marquee that was the dining/ kitchen tent we dubbed ‘the U.N.’ in view of its multinational occupants. Beer was on tap, and there was even an espresso machine. It was surreal. The sudden jump in height from Bishkek (800 m) to BC (at 3600 m) gave us mild AMS. We ate little, but drawing on past experiences, drank much, stayed upright and rested. A short walk after dinner ended back in front of the UN with an impromptu game of cricket courtesy of Andy and Pete - a father/ son double act from Britain. As darkness fell, so did a final wicket and the game ended and with it our AMS.
During the whole expedition, this base camp remained a funny place. There was a peculiarly artificial prelude and eternally changing flow of ‘ins’ and ‘outs’. It had a general sense of bonhomie but also an edge of tension and isolation. It was almost surreal - the young stern faced Russian/ Kyrgyz waitresses scurrying about in typical peasant scarves and the craggy, wild-haired unshaved climbers, in motley attire, the vermillion iron-rich scars on the green horse pasture and pinned up samples of souvenirs. We were as odd as any. Yet, being guideless and self-supporting we were oddities apart. Somewhat like North Korea at the real UN, we were accepted, but seated apart and initially dissuaded from socializing with the other full fee paying folk. Doing our best to accept this incongruity, we took a complete rest day. After our waited table breakfast, we ambled up the valley to reconnoiter our route to Camp 1, and just to develop a sense of belonging and connection.
Herds of horses, golden marmots, asters, wild garlic chives, and various other flora and fauna were in abundance. By the gorge entrance we met two young lads lolling in the warm sun and grass by their ponies. Perhaps hoping to earn some extra cash they offered us rides. In our best mix of gesticulations, the odd word of Russian, Kyrgyz and Arabic we conveyed the unfortunate fact that we had with us not a penny. Not to be put off, they parted Raja (Anindya) from his beloved Ireland Mountaineering Club buff, in return for ‘photographik’ atop the ponies. Much laughter and smiles later we were back at the UN.
Base Camp (3600 m) to Camp 1 (4400 m)
25 kg is a fair load to carry anytime. Going up from 3600 m to 4400 m along dry, treeless tracks in full sun, it is fair graft. The soft grassy meadows with the myriad cheeky marmots gave way to a series of steep, loose, muddy zig-zags that were scoured into the red clay wall. Having crossed the saddle (the pilgrims’ pass), we descended loose scree slopes to the well-worn track that hugged the right hand wall.
Peak Lenin from Base Camp Achik Tash
Here and there a small slip of fine shale cascaded over the track to the dirty glacier below. Our earlier vim evaporated with the moisture in the dry alpine air and strong UV light. At a small river crossing we met Oleg and the Latvians who rose at our approach and cheerily showed us the best place to jump across from wobbly rock to wobbly rock. Not as easy as it looked with our tired legs and bulging packs… but dry we arrived on the other side. “20 minutes, 20 minutes!” assured a thoroughly scurrilous Oleg. 50 minutes later, we saw him again, and it was a cheeky “10 minutes more”. Eventually, like an oasis we stumbled into Camp 1. It was 2:30 p.m. We had walked for eight hours and were halfway done for the day. Met by Vlad the Camp manager we were whisked into a mini UN dining tent and fed like kings. Oleg was waiting for us with a huge smile and piping hot tea. Energy flowed back with speed. Satiated, we turned to the task of returning to BC. As we set off, the weather changed and pellets of graupel7 pinged off our jackets. Unburdened and fed we raced back down. We continued down to BC and by 7:30 p.m. were seated on a table. It seemed like our day return trip had somehow proven us for the unsmiling waitresses and guides now smiled and greeted us. We ate and went to sleep a little more tired, but a little less alien.
On 4 August, 2016, after a day of rest at base, we were off with about 15-17 kg each. The hike was uneventful and we arrived at C1 by 2:30 p.m. The next morning, we watched a crazy human centipede slowly crawl up the slopes towards the bergschrund and crevasses before the Frying Pan area above that leads to C2. Between the two of us, we had never seen so many climbers on a route. Raja was feeling a bit of a cough/ cold so we happily took another rest day. Acclimatization is such a crucial thing, and rushing it never pays off. Our push to meet every single person in the climbing world now ensnared the Catalan team from Barcelona, led by the wild, always laughing and living big ‘Xavi’. These guys were such a burst of happiness and joy. We walked over to the start of the climb…surprisingly further away then it looked! We dubbed the bergschrund crossing point, ‘the dental filling’ and wandered back to watch the French team’s leader Daniel play the blues on his guitar.
Lenin Routes 1
Camp 1 to Camp 2
Ready for the summit : to Camp 2 (5200 m) and Camp 3 (6148 m)
On 6 August, we stored our extra kit, cleaned out the C1 tent and bade our farewells. The snow and rock crunched under our semi-frozen boots as we strolled off in search of flags and cairns in the 4:30 a.m. gloom. Again it was a longer walk than expected with heavy packs. At the bottom of the slope, we roped up for safety and headed up over the dental filling (about 10:30 a.m!). It was a snowy cloudy day, and the slope eased off, into a series of deceptive false crests. Sun broke through a bit and finally as we trudged into sight of the C2 tents nestled protectively against the rocky buttress. We crawled into C2, 5200 m, at 3 : 00 p. m. and got the tent set up. Next morning we were back down at C1 and thus hoped to improve acclimatization.
Down at C1 we re-planned our schedule and summit day attempt and sorted lighter loads with less food and gas. On 10 August, by 8:30 a.m. we were on our way and stumbled into C2 to unbury our tent just as a storm/ whiteout hit. We rested for the coming move up to C3. At about 8:00 p.m., a team of three 70-odd-year old Russians arrived and set up their camp next to us. Their kit was archaic in the extreme. Canvas rucksacks; with no hip belts; leather strapped crampons, tracksuit pants and a full size pressure cooker! But the speed and adroitness at which they attended to their tasks, and got fully set up and dinner cooked, was amazing. They were hard, experienced mountain men.
Half buried in Camp 2
On 12 August, we packed everything, and greeted the neighbours. Roped up, we set off up through the exclusive suburb of upper C2 towards the col above us. Then we swung left along a flatter section to the bottom of the steep slopes up to C3. We met Lukas coming down triumphantly from a 22-hour summit return. A new long time record for Pik Lenin! The final snow slopes up to C3 are steep (45-50 degrees) and taxingly deep in snow. Clouds and wind really picked up as we neared the top. C3 is literally on the lip of the slope too, and as we popped over and into it, we were greeted by a half buried gaggle of orange and red and green domes. We found a slight depression amidst the city where a tent had once been, and set about excavating a site. We threw up the tent in a satisfactory way and decided to melt more snow and eat salami and chocolate. A disappointing weather forecast – three or four days of high wind and snow were on the cards. Nonetheless, we felt strong and positive. We set the alarm for midnight and hoped for the best.
But of course it’s the storm again
It was 13 August and the alarm woke us to a tent that was all but collapsing in on us. We were halfway buried and more snow was falling. Hoar frost covered everything and the headlamps revealed dancing ice crystals in the dark cold air about us. We both had headaches and by 6:00 a.m., it was clear that there would be no summit attempt that day. We did the only sensible thing, and cancelled the summit attempt. Out in the waning morning light, teams were digging out their tents like little moles. Flurries of snow were heaved skyward in gentle arcs that glittered in ephemeral rainbows, and then fell back from whence they came. All in all, only one team set out for summit from C3 (we heard later that it was a short lived and unsuccessful foray). By the 8:00 a.m. radio call, we learnt that this would continue for the next 3-4 days.
Breaking camp is a laborious and cold business. Yet leaving is not altogether unwelcome. The clouds cleared momentarily, and we were treated to gorgeous views down the valley. With still heavy packs we headed down the deep, soft steep slopes towards C2. The descent was hard. It was steep, the snow up to our thighs or knees and we were going down without having had a real throw of dice at the summit. There were very few others going up, but many down. Just above the col, we met the Leningrad blokes. They had camped atop the col overnight, and were just beginning on the steep slopes up. Hard men, and huge smiles and shrugs as to the weather. After the wind and snow of C3, C2 is a broiling, simmering, soul-sapping hot mess. It seemed that the descent was taking forever, and that the glacier after the slopes endless. Finally we emerged up the rocky moraine wall to an agency’s camp and the first thing that the manager said to us was, “Beer? Fanta? Cola?” – No “Hi!” No “Salam-alaikum!” No “Khandai?”… Just an offer to take our money. Our welcome back to civilization was not exactly inspiring. Such irony under a mountain named after Lenin, but so is almost everything in life!
A couple of days later we were down at base camp and waited for our bus back to Osh. Chatter faded away to zero inside the mini-bus. It was after midnight, I suppose, that we disembarked at the hotel, and wearily hauled our loads to our rooms. Sleep came fast after a glorious hot shower – the first in weeks.
Anindya and Jake.
As for Peak Lenin, it was about to experience a few days of storm and snow. Like it was supposed to happen. As for us two, we got what we came for. Two friends got together to climb a mountain, in good style and on their way home they had made many friends. Like it was supposed to happen.
In August 2016, friends, Athol Jake Preston (Australia) and Anindya Mukherjee (India) decided to rope up and climb the 7134 m high Pik/ Peak Lenin by its north-west ridge (Razdelnaya route) in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia in alpine style. They had to turn back from their summit camp (6148 m) due to a heavy snow storm.
ATHOL JAKE PRESTON is an Australian born adventurer who is now a resident of South Korea where he teaches at University. He loves the natural world, and has a fascination for mountain cultures, peoples and cuisines. Jake has been found cycling, running, climbing all over the world over 20 years and always with an eye to what may come next. Jake believes not in conquering or competing but in experiencing and sharing the challenges of such a life.
Read about ANINDYA MUKHERJEE on page 302 of this Volume.
Loinbo Kangri exceeding 7000 m is less-frequented but has an alluring profile, gently snow-covered and magnificent, featuring the mountains of Central Tibet. We have been attracted and tempted to do an adventurous and exciting climb to open a new route on the north face.
In the fall of 2016 Kazuya Hiraide and I made the first ascent of Loinbo Kangri in the Gangdise mountains of Central Tibet. A three- week journey and a 10 day climbing period are said to be rather short, but it was an efficient expedition. Our climb was the second ascent of Loinbo Kangri.
The mountain range Gangdise Shan lies between the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and the Tibetan high plateau, the Chang Tang. It stretches about 2000 km in an east-west direction and covers about 200 km in the south-north direction. Due to its location ‘behind’ the Himalayan range - separated by the Tsangpo valley - it is also known as the Trans-Himalayan region. Towards the south, the Gangdise Shan exhibits steep slopes, while it levels off rather gradually towards the north. Towards the east it extends as a separate range, the Nyainqentanglha.
Sven Hedin was the first western explorer to describe the mountain range in detail and its function as a watershed between the Indus and Tsangpo rivers and northern Tibet. He published reports about his journeys (1905 to 1908) across the Gangdise Shan in three volumes called Trans-Himalaya.
Loinbo Kangri 7095 m, is the highest peak of the Gangdise mountains, located 700 km west of Lhasa.
The Himalayan Association of Japan first attempted Loinbo Kangri via the northeast ridge in spring of 1994 but was unsuccessful. They gave up the ascent at 6200 m. Two years later, in 1996, a joint party of China and Korea made the first ascent via the northeast ridge.
Loinbo Kangri exceeding 7000 m is less-frequented but has an alluring profile, gently snow-covered and magnificent, featuring the mountains of Central Tibet. We have been attracted and tempted to do an adventurous and exciting climb to open a new route on the north face.
On 8 September 2016, we flew to Lhasa from Chengdu. The earlier expeditions were conducted in spring and autumn, whilst we chose to go soon after the monsoon season in view of monsoon cycle and our personal convenience. We first intended to enter the mountain from Nepal as the approach is shorter. However, as the border in Zammu was still closed, we had to start from Lhasa.
It was a light non-supported expedition which was our first of this kind in the Himalaya. We hired no HAP, BC staff or cook. Only a car driver and a Liaison Officer accompanied us. We brought camping gear and foodstuff and cooked our food.
We departed from Lhasa by a comfortable wagon and over two days we drove 600 km to Saga on the well-paved highway to the west but we were continuously watched by the Public Security Police and our car speed was checked at intervals. On the third day after leaving Lhasa, we arrived at a village called Gargonchang in the vicinity of the base camp to the north of the mountain. The road to the base camp from here is rough and therefore, a jeep or truck was necessary. But as no arrangement for vehicles was possible, we tried to hire yaks pasturing there for luggage but the herders would not allow yaks to be used for transportation. After negotiation with the chief of the village, motorbikes were provided to carry us to the base camp. They were dangerously driven and it was a terrible experience indeed.
Loinbo Kangri 7095 m seen from Chomog
Loinbo Kangri north face, Achi Co and glacier
Loinbo Kangri north face
We at last had a complete view of Loinbo Kangri on the following day, after having set up base camp. The north face, our objective, looked viable to climb on a continued line. Both of us had no problems of altitude at base camp and soon started reconnaissance, partly for acclimatization. As the north ridge seemed to be used for descent, we stayed two nights at around 6250 m on the north ridge after reaching the highest point of about 6750 m. A view from the north ridge let us know our intended climbing line was not exposed to danger of avalanches but warned us that large snow showers took place frequently. The summit was often covered in cloud and snow conditions were unfavorable. Cloudy and fine weather alternated for several days, but it was rather stable and there was no sign of onset of bad weather. After returning to base camp, we heard the weather forecast that bad weather would start three days later and get stormy for some time. The present snow conditions were the best for climbing. “How long would the bad weather last? If we waited for a long time without doing anything, we would lose a chance to attack the north face”, were our thoughts. Although I felt a bit uneasy at that high altitude, there was no other choice except to make headway towards the north face.
Rest in base camp was only for a day, but half of it was spent in preparation. Though we made as much haste as possible, our minds remained strangely calm and we were not as excited as we had been when we were imagining our climb on the north face.
We left base camp on 20 September. No one saw us off. We entered the moraine from the right bank of a glacial lake called Achi Co then crossed a snow plateau to the north face as if detouring the north ridge. The north face, looking up from the start of the climb felt sheerer, steeper and overhung. It was different from the impression we had had when we saw it from a distance at the time of reconnaissance.
The first several pitches were on a steep snow wall with good conditions and no danger of avalanches. That soon changed to perfect ice, which we negotiated using ice axes and fore-spikes of crampon. The plan for Day One was to climb up to the entrance of couloirs. However, as the wall conditions were quite favorable, better than we had assumed, we made good headway. Although the surface was snow, there was solid and hard ice beneath that snow and runner was secured by screws. Where there was vertical ice, we made a belay for safety, but we kept continuously climbing as much as possible almost all the way for speeding up. Since we ascended with almost no rest, our calves were extremely tired. It was almost sunset when we stopped. We had to find a bivouac, but both sides of couloirs had sheer walls and there was no safe place inside the couloirs. We were tired and slow, but we had to plod ahead. After finishing the couloirs by continuous climbing, the left wall stretched into a snow ridge and we found a suitable spot for setting up a tent. The slope was steep but a tent could be placed by cutting the snow.
The weather was about to change. The blue sky became dark with cloud and it was thundering. The fog gradually came down and disturbed our cutting work for the tent-site. After two hours of digging we managed to set up the tent. It was not flat but had enough space for lying down.
On the following day we woke up after sunrise. It was cloudy but the weather seemed stable. We had already climbed the most critical part of the north face and the remaining part was only a snow wall. But my condition was bad. I could not even sip a drink. I was losing confidence but there was no way to return. I pushed myself towards the summit. The summit ridge was covered by new snow of the previous day’s snowfall so we walked in deep snow. In this section, Hiraide followed my foot-steps, as agreed. After getting over cornice of the summit ridge, we saw a vast landscape extending before us. A gentle 100 m slope led us to the summit. We stood atop.
“I want to go down as soon as possible”. I had never had felt so before. I had no strength to enjoy the summit. The descent route was a narrow knife edge. We descended rope by rope, using snow bars. There were cornices here and there. We could return to base camp on the same day via the north ridge, which we had ascended to a certain point at the time of reconnaissance.
We finished the climb of the north face in two days. We believe that our climbing strategy was the best choice for the north face of Loinbo Kangri. A light expedition of only two members made it possible to complete the climb in 10 days from setting up base camp to leaving base camp.
Through the expedition we recognized that the food plan is one of the most important factors for success.
Climbing chronicle of Loinbo Kangri massif
Loinbo Kangri east ridge. (Bruce Normand)
Climbing north face
On the summit
A multi-national expedition organized by Bruce Normand (UK), with Brian Alder and Erik Monasterio (New Zealand), Monika Hronska and Oliver von Rotz (Switzerland) and Stephen Parker (Australia) made a number of first ascents on the Loinbo Kangri massif, part of the Gangdise range of Central Tibet. The area is characterized by often sharp, granitic summits and the highest, 7095 m Loinbo Kangri, was first climbed by Koreans, Bang Jung-hil, Cha Jing-choi and You Seok-jae in October 1996 via the northeast ridge. Two years earlier, the mountain had been the goal of a Japanese expedition. Although they failed to make much headway, they did manage to make the first ascent of Pt 6340 m, an easy but sharp peak to the east.
Up to that time the area had not received a visit by Western travellers since the days of Sven Hedin’s explorations just after the turn of the 20th century. Following a reconnaissance trip in 1998, Julian Freeman-Attwood and Lindsay Griffin climbed a snow dome of 6263 m to the east of Loinbo. The two returned the following year with Phil Barlett, Christian Beckwith, Harry and Pat Reeves to attempt the 6530 m unclimbed granite pyramid of Phola Kyung at the head of the Qulunggam glacier, southeast of Loinbo. Consistently poor weather allowed only a few lower summits of limited consequence to be climbed : Gophalo South (6100 m); Pt 6202 m, and Pt c. 6000 m.
Two small summits in the middle of the range were climbed by a UK school expedition (2003) and another British expedition. The former returned in 2005 for a crack at Phola Kyung; the attempt was, like before, thwarted by poor weather and snow conditions.
In contrast, the 2006 expedition enjoyed very stable, if cold, weather throughout its stay during October. This gave deep powder on the approach to most objectives but moderate snow climbing on the peaks. The team first acclimatized by reconnoitering the drainage systems north and south of the extended east ridge of Loinbo. A cache was placed low down on the ridge and a second some 15 km west of their c. 5050 m base camp, in the valley north of Loinbo (the main valley system here rises past a nomadic settlement to the Nyidakang la). From the latter, Alder, Monasterio and Normand made the first ascent of the second highest peak in the range, Kangbulu (aka Chomogan : 6655 m). This large but moderately-angled snow dome was climbed via the southeast face to southeast ridge. Meanwhile Hronska, Parker and von Rotz climbed the east ridge of Pt 6340 m. Parker and von Rotz reached the pointed summit for a probable second ascent of the mountain.
The climbers then established a high camp at 5700 m on the Qulunggam glacier, which surrounds Phola Kyong. From this camp on the 13th, Normand, Parker and von Rotz climbed the unnamed Pt 6200 m (29°0 48.327’ N, 84° 38.456’ E : height and coordinates measured by GPS) via its east ridge. This is the most westerly of the five snow summits that form the southern rim of the Qulunggam glacier. Normand continued alone up the northwest ridge of Pt 6289 m (29° 48.186’ N, 84° 38.872’ E). The following day Parker and von Rotz climbed a new route up Pt 6289 m via the north face for its second ascent, and then continued up the west ridge of Pt 6240 m (29° 48.128’ N, 84 deg 39.252’ E) : this is 68 MAR 08. Actually a double summit and both were climbed, with the lower measured at 6237 m. Four days later, on the 18th, Alder, Monasterio and Normand made the first ascent of the highest of this group of five, Pt 6355 m.
The first two climbed the north face to northeast ridge, while Normand circumambulated the mountain to the west and then soloed the south face. This peak had previously been attempted to within 200 m of the summit from two directions by members of the 1999 expedition but serious avalanche danger prevented success. After climbing 6355 m Normand then soloed the South Face of Pt 6240 m for the second overall ascent. Finally, on the 19th Parker and von Rotz climbed the last of the group of five, Pt 6202 m, via the northeast ridge. This was more or less a repeat of the 1999 ascent, on which the climbers discovered snow leopard tracks to 6000 m. Returning to the 16th : on that day, Alder, Monasterio and Normand completed the expedition goal by making the first ascent of the elegant pyramid, Phola Kyung. The three reached the summit and returned to high camp in one day, having climbed the most easterly of the four snow gullies on the southeast face to reach the upper east ridge. Five roped pitches along this led to the top (the mountain had been climbed to c. 6250 m in 1999 during a reconnaissance of the east ridge). On the same day, Hronska, Parker and von Rotz made the probable second ascent of Pt 6263 m via the east face (route of first ascent) in a single day from base camp.
On the final day’s climbing, Normand made a long and solitary expedition to the unclimbed Gopalho (6450 m) further south in the main range, which he ascended via the east face. Meanwhile, von Rotz was also making a solitary excursion in to the range of lower, rounded peaks to the northeast of the Loinbo Kangri group. There he climbed a south-facing slope to the top of a summit he measured as Pt 6044 m (29° 55.216’ N, 84 deg 50.946’ E).
The team also inspected possibilities on Loinbo Kangri itself, noting a good ice couloir on the north face that might go in May/June, the west face, which may not be steep enough to have good neve/ice all the way, and the south face, which appears to have reasonable if lengthy access but presents a big snow/ice face with few bivouac options.
First ascent of the north face of the Loinbo Kangri in the Gangdise range of Tibet by a lightweight two-man Japanese team of Kenro Nakajima and Kazuya Hiraide.
Kenro’s article is followed by Lindsay Griffin’s Climbing Chronicle of Loinbo Kangri Massif.
Phola Kyung (6530 m) in the Gangdise range. East ridge to the left. The first ascent in October 2006 by Bruce Normand, up the most easterly of four snow couloirs on the southeast face and then along the upper east ridge to the summit (Bruce Normand)
South face of Phola Kyung in front and south face of Loinbo Kangri seen from Pk 6355 m (Bruce Normand)
View southwest over the southern Loinbo Kangri range seen from Pk 6355 m. In the distance are the Dhaulagiri peaks, with Dhaulagiri I (8167 m) left of centre (Bruce Normand)
Pk 6240 m (centre) and Pk 6355 m (left) viewed from the west (Bruce Normand)
Pk 6340 m and neighbouring summits seen from the Qulanggam glacier (Bruce Normand)
KENRO NAKAJIMA is a reputed Japanese mountaineer and photographer.