Rongdo Village (Divyesh Muni)
Team on Argan la
We had completed over 100 km of traverse that took us across pristine glaciers and mountains. We crossed three high passes (two first crossings) and ascended an unclimbed peak.
‘Doctor, I am planning to trek back to base camp. What do you think?’ I asked, as I sat in his clinic in Leh with a ’boxer’s eye’ that made me look like a character out of a horror film. ‘You are crazy,’ was his spontaneous reply.
When our six-member team (consisting of Ashish Prabhu, Huzefa Electricwalla, Sonali Bhatia, Rajesh Gadgil, Vineeta Muni and I) from The Himalayan Club, accompanied by Aditya Kulkarni, a cinematographer, set out from Rongdo, a quaint village in Ladakh, we had little idea of our final destination or of where we would eventually land up. We had an audacious plan to traverse the East Karakoram range - the map indicated a route in a desolate and remote area of which there is almost no existing information.
The Karakoram mountain range is one of the most forbidding in the world with a large number of peaks higher than 7000 m. The north- western extension of the Himalaya, this range spans the borders between Pakistan, India and China.
The Shyok river originates from the Rimo glaciers and flows southeast till it meets the Pangong range of peaks. It then takes a bend and flows northwest, parallel to its previous path and meets the Nubra river to finally join the Indus. The mountains between the two parallel flows of the Shyok and the Nubra, form the southern section of the east Karakoram range. Our plan was to start trekking from the southern- most village in the Nubra valley and find our way as north as possible, along the northwest to southeast axis of the range.
Our team flew into Leh on 5 July 2017. Rations and gear were sent overland from Mumbai via Manali. We met our support staff in Leh and while repacking rations and equipment, we realized, to our horror, that we were one kit-bag short. Our truck had been stopped on the outskirts of Leh by tax officials at the check-post and a bag had been missing since then. It contained our medical supplies, as well as my boots, feather jacket, warm clothes, and some technical gear. Fortunately I was able to order a new pair of boots and have them delivered at Leh within two days! We replaced the medical supplies and warm clothes and the technical gear was borrowed from Rimo Expeditions. We were finally set to move.
As His Holiness, the Dalai Lama was scheduled for a week-long visit to the Nubra valley, it was impossible to hire any help locally As His Holiness, the Dalai Lama was scheduled for a week-long visit to the Nubra valley, it was impossible to hire any help locally
The famous sand dunes of the Nubra literally stopped us in our tracks. On our way to Rongdo village, the wheels of the vehicles began to spin in the sand and so the cars had to be sent back. A lot of shovelling, some driving tricks, some brute strength, and we managed to get one truck across. We all piled into the truck for the final stretch.
The route from Rongdo village climbs steeply along the true right of the Rongdo Lungpa (river) for the first 10 km before it flattens out into lush green fields and gentle slopes. Hardly had we pitched camp than it began to drizzle. We were not too concerned as our tents from one of the leading brands were brand new. Half an hour into the rain and we heard shouts from one of the tents “Hey! It’s raining inside our tent…” This was confidence shattering. The tents were meant to be lightweight all-season tents advertised as excellent alpine tents for high mountains. Vineeta, Sonali and all their gear were drenched. They had puddles of water inside their tents. The rain continued through the night so we spent many a sleepless hour trying to protect our belongings.
The morning was clear and sunny, allowing us to dry our gear and ourselves before moving to the next camp. The route went past a lone shepherd’s hut (called doksa) to our camp at the ‘Water God’.
The Rongdo Lungpa narrows down at this spot and thunders through a rock chasm barely 10 m wide to form a waterfall. The villagers consider this a holy spot.
The next day’s trek brought us to the sulphur springs at the junction of the Chhurn Nangma stream with the Rongdo Lungpa and Sakskyulas Tokpo.
We decided to attempt an unclimbed peak in the area. That would enable us to acclimatize for the traverse and provide views of the terrain ahead. The proposed route to the peak was from the first pass (Rongdo la) which we would cross for the traverse. The initial part of the expedition wasn’t unusual. We set up base camp, ABC and summit camp (Rongdo la) for the attempt.
Base camp was past a dilapidated shepherd’s hut and up some steep residual moraine of the Sagtogpa glacier at a height of 5000 m.
After a day of rest and reorganizing, we explored a route to cross a high pass to allow access to the east Phunangma glacier. Advance base camp was set up at 5500 m.
Unfortunately, while climbing towards ABC, I slipped on a loose rock and was knocked momentarily unconscious. The resulting internal bleeding around my forehead left a sizeable bump and clot that left me looking like a one-eyed monster. Accompanied by a few team members I trekked back to Rongdo and travelled back to Leh to consult a doctor before we continued our expedition. We were back at BC within a week (much to the doctor’s horror), ready for the adventures ahead.
Looking northwest - panorama from Nga Kangri
Nga Kangri - 6165 m
We quickly occupied ABC and established a camp at a high pass at 5800 m (named Rongdo la). From there, on 1 August, we made our way to the northwest ridge of a small peak northeast of our camp. A short steep snow climb gave us access to the ridge. The easy angled ridge led us to the summit by 10:00 AM. This was the first ascent of the peak; we named it Nga Kangri (Ladakhi for Snow Peak) 6165 m.
After a day’s rest, we were now set to traverse further north. Vipin, Dinesh, Ajit, and Aditya returned to Nubra valley down the Rongdo while the six members supported by Pasang, Pemba, Sunil and Sanjay prepared for the trek beyond.
The tents turned out to be totally useless. A few thousand dollars down the drain! We sent the entire lot down. Fortunately, we had three good tents to continue the traverse. The group that went down had to manage with bad tents for a day or two.
Route through south Argan glacier
Looking northwest down the Sagtogpa glacier to the junction of east Phunangma glacier and south Argan glacier. (A) Karpo Kangri (6535 m) (B) Konto la (C) Argan Kangri II (6640 m) (D) Argan Kangri (6789 m)
A gradual descent from the Rongdo la to the north brought us to camp at 5628 m. The next day we were at the junction of the east Phunangma glacier and the south Argan glacier. After several hours of searching, we finally found a safe route to access the south Argan glacier through a huge icefall. We camped at the Junction (5434 m) and decided to cross the icefall early the next day.
Route finding on Argan ice fall
Looking southeast from the upper section of the south Argan glacier. The prominent snow pyramid is Sagtogpa Kangri
The south Argan glacier flattened out after the icefall. It took us five hours to reach our camp (5777 m) below the high pass that would allow us to cross the ridge coming down from Argan Kangri. On 6 August fortunately, we found a safe crossing of the Argan la (5950 m) that involved a 200 m climb, a traverse of a narrow ridge and a 100 m descent into the north Argan glacier. This was the first crossing of this pass.
The euphoria of having found a safe crossing lulled us into a complacent mood and we strolled down the gradual glacier towards our intended camp. The team had gone ahead so Vineeta and I followed the firm footsteps ahead chatting all the while. Suddenly, the snow caved in and I found myself dangling over a deep crevasse. My backpack had jammed me at the edge of the crevasse. As I tried to move, I could hear the tinkling noise of ice pieces falling deep below me. My mind was racing. The rest of the team were too far ahead to help us. I did not know how long the rucksack would keep me wedged at the lip of the crevasse. In desperation, I swung my legs sideways with all the strength I could muster and rolled out of the crevasse.
Vineeta and I sat quietly for some time, absorbing the consequences of what could have happened and then caught up with the waiting team members at the camp (5625 m). It was late in the day and the crevasses were opening. All of us were shaken by the accident. We decided to proceed further next day.
The north Argan glacier, which started as a gentle glacier from Argan la, had turned into a highly broken and dangerous icefall, posing a challenge in route finding. Eventually, we discovered a tricky but safe route on the true right of the icefall. We had many an anxious moment traversing seracs, crossing narrow ice bridges and passing under rockfall prone slopes till we finally exited the icefall. The glacier flattened out and we made our way to the south Shukpa Kunchang glacier.
A grassy scenic campsite on the true right of the glacier at 4888 m provided rest and recuperation for the night. We continued our upward journey on the giant south Shukpa Kunchang glacier over skid-prone gravel and loose boulders. A few kilometres of moraine and we were on ice. The entire glacier was covered with flowing water. It took us more than an hour to locate a camp (5247 m) on higher ground where the water flow was minimal.
The upper section of the glacier was broad and flat and easier to walk on. The landscape was astounding with the formidable Saser Kangri II dominating the horizon. The second day’s trek on the glacier brought us to camp (5634 m) at the base of the next pass.
On 10 August, we made the first crossing of the high pass we named Zamoriyon la (5860 m) across the Zamoriyon glacier to enter the Sakang valley. The approach to the pass was easy angled ice slopes. On the west of the pass, a short steep descent brought us to the Zamoriyon glacier which then descended gradually for the first few kilometres before suddenly transforming into a maze of loose rocks and boulders down a steep slope. It was late evening and we were all exhausted with the day’s climb and long glacier walk. The extreme end of the slope was exposed to rockfall. We were now forced to traverse to the right, across the waterfall created by the melting glacier. Carefully avoiding the ice-cold water and loose boulders balancing precariously in the water channel, we found ourselves literally out in the green grassy meadows of the lower valley. Finally, a difficult river crossing brought us to our campsite (4859 m) at the snout of the Sakang glacier.
Camp on south Shukpa Kunchang glacieri
We were happily reunited with Aditya, Dinesh, Ajit and Vipin who had brought up supplies. After several days of eating freeze-dried food, freshly cooked food was a treat.
After a few days of badly needed rest, we trekked to the head of the Sakang Lungpa glacier. We observed the route ahead and decided to end the expedition at the high point on the glacier below Plateau peak.
We descended the Sakang valley which proved to be the sting in the tail. The entire route was broken due to the cloudburst in the previous year and the team had to cross large sections of exposed mountainside on a non-existent trail. We were finally down to our hotel at Tigur in the Nubra valley on 18 August.
We had completed over 100 km of traverse that took us across pristine glaciers and mountains. We crossed three high passes (two first crossings) and ascended an unclimbed peak. We overcame hurdles and delays, theft of equipment, two accidents, erratic stormy weather and extreme cold. We returned satisfied at having pushed our limits - both physical and mental. It was an experience of being out and on the edge amidst the most rugged and breath-taking mountains in the world! It was a celebration of friendship and teamwork.
This expedition celebrates 90 years of The Himalayan Club.
Divyesh Muni (Leader), Rajesh Gadgil, Vineeta Muni, Huzefa Electricwala, Ashish Prabhu and Sonali Bhatia. Cinematographer - Aditya Kulkarni
Pasang Bhote, Pemba Bhutia, Sanjay Thakur, Sunil Thakur, Dinesh Thakur, Ajit Soni and Vipin Sharma.
To celebrate 90 years, a team from The Himalayan Club, led by Divyesh Muni decided to traverse the East Karakoram range in July 2017. They made the first ascent of the peak 6165 m which they named Nga Kangri. They also made first crossings of the Argan la (5950 m) and Zamoriyon la (5860 m), facing many challenges on the way.
Divyesh is a Chartered Accountant by profession and one of India’s finest climbers by passion. In the last 36 years of active climbing, he has climbed over 35 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.
The route down the Sakang Lungpa