The East Karakoram Revisited

Derek Buckle

Sumur Kangri (5,991m)

Sumur Kangri (5,991m) WNW ridge showing the line of the 1st ascent.

The snowy summit offered superb views in all directions, especially towards Nya Kangri. We chose to call this peak Sumur Kangri which we graded Alpine AD.

In 2016 I led a successful expedition to the lower Rassa glacier during which we accomplished the first ascent of two 6000 m peaks, Lak Kangri and Thrung-ma Kangri1. With so much more left to be done in this area I was keen to return to the East Karakoram in 2017. This time, however, our team wanted to explore the upper reaches of the Rassa glacier and also to approach it from the north rather than the south. In 2014, a team led by Divyesh Muni had completed a south to north traverse of the glacier - approaching by way of the Tirit nala and descending into the Sumur Lungpa2 - so we anticipated that we could access the glacier by reversing their route of descent (via the East Rassa col). In the event that we were not able to do this, our backup plan was to explore the upper reaches of the complex Sumur glacier, an area that had seen few, if any, mountaineers.

Man has inhabited the valleys of the Nubra, Indus and Zanskar for millennia and there is abundant evidence of his passing in the petroglyphs that he has left behind. Examples of these were particularly prominent in the glazed granitic rocks surrounding the Sumur lakes where we established base camp. A study of the major areas has linked these drawings to the steppe peoples of the Bronze Age and they are widespread throughout Ladakh and Tibet. Subsequent to this, the Sumur Lungpa was reportedly used as an important trade route between the Nubra and Shyok valleys, although this must have been an arduous journey which, due to glacial recession (and modern transport), is no longer viable. An ancient fort dominates the valley entrance, presumably designed to protect against invaders from the east. Today, local villagers still use the Sumur Lungpa for summer grazing, but it is noticeably less travelled than the more fertile Tirit nala to the south.

Despite our previous visit to the Nubra valley, we were not spared the inevitable anguish of wondering whether we would be granted a permit to return again in 2017. Eventually, with just enough time to organize the requisite mountaineering visas, approval was forthcoming and our five-man party was ready to depart. Leaving the UK on 31 August 2017 we assembled in Delhi for the obligatory visit to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and to meet our liaison officer, Sandeep Varma. We then flew to Leh, which at 3500 m is an ideal place for acclimatization. Four days later, during which we had an opportunity to visit Pangdong lake, we crossed the 5370 m Khardung la to spend two days in Sumur village before starting the walk-in to base camp.

The Sumur Lungpa starts pleasantly at the Samstanling Gompa where we were cordially greeted by the incumbent Geshe (head teacher). From here we began the steep and strenuous climb to the hillside fort before the gradient lessened somewhat as we traversed high above the torrent below. Gradually the view became more impressive as the valley widened and at 4840 m we established an intermediate camp (Camp 1) where the Lungtung valley joins the main river. The climb was tough for us, but it was more of a challenge for the local porters, many of whom dropped their loads before reaching camp. While this caused us some inconvenience, our permanent support staff rescued the day by retrieving some essential supplies, notably kerosene, to add to our comfort. The thought of cooking our evening meal on yak dung lacked a certain appeal for those used to modern fuel!

The next day was spent consolidating the intermediate camp, but supplies were still spread out lower down the valley. In contrast to the Tirit nala, where horses could transport supplies, the broken terrain of the Sumur Lungpa necessitated the need for porters and the local villagers found this to be a tough proposition. One could not help but be sympathetic, but with limited time available we needed to get to base camp. Eventually, with the help of our high altitude porters, the climbing party established an embryonic base camp (Camp 2) on 10 September at an idyllic spot by the Sumur lakes at 5160 m. This strategy allowed us to acclimatize further by exploring the complex moraines leading to the glacier proper while base camp was fully consolidated.

Sumur Kangri with Nya Kangri

Ascending Sumur Kangri with Nya Kangri north face behind

Our first objective was to investigate the more southerly glacial arm D, which we planned to use both for acclimatization and as a potential access point to the upper Rassa glacier. Preliminary exploration indicated that climbing the true left lateral moraine gave easy access to the glacier so on 15 September Camp 3 was established on a plateau at 5500 m in sight of the tremendous north face/ridge of unclimbed Nya Kangri (6480 m). Of greater interest to us, however, was the elegant 5991 m peak to its left, which we subsequently attempted on 16 September. Climbing poorly consolidated snow, we post-holed easily southwards to the WNW ridge where the angle steepened markedly to about 40°. After only a short distance, however, the threat of avalanches forced a retreat to safer ground. Later, on 29 September, three of us returned to complete the first ascent by the same route under considerably more favourable conditions. The snowy summit offered superb views in all directions, especially towards Nya Kangri. We chose to call this peak Sumur Kangri which we graded Alpine AD.

Derek & Drew at Camp 3

Derek & Drew at Camp 3 with Sumur Kangri (L) and Nya Kangi behind (Jamie Goodheart)

Before returning for the second attempt on Sumur Kangri, a fourth camp was established higher on the glacier at 5743 m from which Derek, Drew, Howard and Rafal post-holed arduously up the glacier on 18 September to make the first ascent of what we originally thought was a defined peak (ca. 6032 m) at the glacier head. On climbing the easy-angled south face, however, this ‘peak’ turned out to be simply the convergence point of three ridges rather than a mountain per se. As a result we chose to call it Deception Point (6068 m by GPS). Disappointingly, not only was this not a mountain, it also failed to offer easy access to either of its more impressive neighbouring peaks or an opportunity to cross into the upper reaches of the Rassa glacier. One consolation was that it did offer some impressive views in all directions.

After returning from Camp 4 we spent a brief time at base camp during which we investigated which of the other glacial arms offered the greater opportunity for exploration and climbing. On balance, we decided to site our fifth camp on glacial arm C since this appeared not only more interesting, but also provided the route to the east Rassa col, which we still hoped to climb. Having made this decision we subsequently established Camp 5 a little short of the base of the col on a plateau at 5680 m. Setting off from this camp on 25 September, Derek, Drew, Howard and Rafal made the first ascent of the twin- headed peak at the glacier head via its south face, taking turns to post-hole arduously up the gradually steepening slope. The route led first to the small, rocky summit of the south peak (6071 m, Alpine PD) before traversing easily to the slightly higher snowy north peak (6078 m). We chose to call this mountain Tsagtuk Kangri (Ladakhi for Twin Snow Peak).

Ascending to Camp 4

Ascending to Camp 4 (Drew Cook)

Drew Cook & Rafal Malczyk on the summit of Tsagtuk South (6071 m) after making the 1st ascent

Drew Cook & Rafal Malczyk

Before dismantling Camp 5 we ploughed a trail to the foot of the north face leading to the East Rassa col to check the viability of using this approach to the Rassa glacier. We were not optimistic, however, since we already knew that all north-facing slopes were highly avalanche prone. Their instability was reinforced by the frequent large snow sloughs that we had seen. A snow pit was sufficient to convince the party that this face was too dangerous to attempt under the present conditions, so the idea was abandoned. We therefore returned to Camp 3 for the second attempt on Sumur Kangri, before returning home on 7 October.

The team are grateful for the support of the Mount Everest Foundation, the Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund, the Austrian Alpine Club (UK) and Duffler of Sweden.


Derek Buckle (leader), Drew Cook, Jamie Goodhart (who departed early on in the expedition due to a family bereavement), Rafal Malczyk and Howard Pollitt.


1. D. R. Buckle, Himalayan Journal, 250, 72, (2017)

2. D. Muni, American Alpine Journal, 310, 57, (2015)

From three high camps on the Sumur glacier, members of a five-man Alpine Club party made first ascents of Deception Point (6068 m, Alpine grade F, 18 September 2017), Tsagtuk Kangri south and north (6071 m and 6078 m respectively, Alpine grade PD, 25 September 2017) and Sumur Kangri (5991 m, Alpine grade AD, 29 September 2017).

About the Author

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. He is the Hon. Local Secretary of the HC in the UK.

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