Last light on the tip of Mt Nun and Kun. Nun (right) west face, Kun (extreme left) southwest face and Pinnacle peak (centre)
The mountain was draped in a striking golden hue, shining like a king’s armour, with a snow plume, skimming the centre of the crown of the majestic mountain face.
As I stood at the break of dawn, on the scrubby lawn of the rest house at Purtikche, the crisp mountain air of the Suru valley shook off my morning slumber. Far in the distance, rising gently from the valley floor stood a beautiful mountain flanked by other snow clad peaks, amidst an otherwise, predominantly brown panorama of mountains. Dominating the valley from its high ramparts, the mountain towered like a regal monarch, presiding over its lesser subjects. This was the 7135 m Nun – King of the Suru valley.
Nun is the highest mountain of Kashmir Himalaya. Technically, the peak which lies on the fringe of the Zanskar mountain forms parts of a massif, which is an off shoot of the Great Himalayan Range into Ladakh. Together with its sister peak Kun1 (7087 m), which lies 4.5 km to its north east and a cluster of other peaks, Nun-Kun massif is well known to the mountaineering fraternity. The Gazetteer of Kashmir and Ladakh, describes the Nun-Kun massif.2
Nun-Kun Peaks - Lat.34° Long 76°10’. Elevation 23,447 feet. In the Western Himalayas, about 14 miles east of the Bhot Kol pass. These two peaks are conspicuous from afar, and are 3,000 feet higher than the surrounding mountains.
The Nun-Kun massif to the north is bounded by the Suru valley and the Zanskar range. To the east, it is flanked by the Suru valley and the Pensila (4400 m), a pass which separates Suru from the Zanskar valley. To the south lies the Kishtwar National Park and the Krash Nai river. While to the south west and to the south lie a maze of glaciers, peaks and rivers giving access to Kashmir, Kishtwar and the Doda regions, of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Nun Kun massif was formed reportedly some 22 million years ago, as a result of the collision of the tectonic plates of the Indian land mass and Central Asia. The rocks predominantly are stratified sedimentary rocks comprising of shale and sandstone. Metamorphic rocks and granite formations are also seen at places. The area is rich in minerals, especially garnets.
Fanny Bullock Workman and William Hunter Workman, the American explorer couple, have described the Nun Kun massif.3
The Nun Kun mountain-group lies a few miles in direct line south-east of Suru, between 33°55’ and 34°5’ lat N., and 76°2’ and 76° 13’ long E., as shown on the Indian Survey Map. The massif is comparatively small and compact, standing up by itself in the midst of a network of mountains and occupying, practically, a square with a side of eleven to twelve miles. Two parallel spurs of the same fold, connected indirectly with the Nun Kun by narrow ridges, run west to 75°53’ long E., enclosing a glacier eight miles long, but these can scarcely be regarded as a part of the Nun Kun massif. The highest central portion is guarded on all sides by a multitude of ragged, precipitous spurs or buttresses, which run down from it to the surrounding valleys. They culminate in pointed or serrated summits, attaining heights of 18,000 to 20,000 feet. On the north and east they fall very abruptly, and their broken, often perpendicular, walls offer insuperable barriers to the approach of the explorer. On the other two sides much broken glaciers and steep ice-walls, while not rendering the main peaks inaccessible, make the approach to them and their conquest matters requiring mountaineering experience and skill, as well as thorough mountaineering outfit, and careful preparations. The northern slopes overhang the Suru river in the Rangdum valley for eight miles, for which distance with the opposite mountain they enclose a gorge, through which it flows.
The Workmans further observed.4
The central part of the massif rises 2000 to 4000 feet not only above its own lesser peaks, but above all others for scores of miles around, the nearest peak that exceeds it in height being Nanga Parbat, 120 miles north-west. East, west, and south, none of the multitude of mountains overlooked by it approach it in height. It stands alone, a lofty island of rock and ice, towering bold and sharp from an ocean of surrounding peaks to an altitude measured 23,447 feet.
The dominating massif of Nun-Kun lies in the Kargil district of Ladakh, which became a separate district in 1979. Before 1947, Kargil was part of Wazarat or district of Ladakh. After 1947, it became part of Leh district. In 2003 the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil was formed. Today, Kargil with an average elevation of 2676 m is the district headquarters with four Administrative Blocks. It is well connected through NH-1D to Srinagar and Leh. The district covers a vast area of nearly 14086 square kms best described as a cold desert, with temperatures dropping to -48° C and below in winters and rising to 35° C in summer. The sparsely populated district is multi ethnic with Brogpas, Baltis, Purik, Shinas and Ladakhis. 98% of the 1.43 lakh population (as per 2011 census) is Muslim with 2% Buddhist.
The mountains of the Nun-Kun massif are mainly approached along the Suru river, from Kargil. The Suru or Kartse river, has its source in the water shed of the Pensila. While the waters south of the Pensila flow into the Stod or Doda river, the waters flowing north, give birth to the 185 km long Suru river. The river, after originating from the north of the Pensila, which is the catchment area flows in a north westerly direction before veering north easterly and north to Ringdum Gompa from where it flows in a westerly direction. At Tangol, it makes a sharp bend and then flows in a north and north easterly direction, along the road from Padum to Kargil. Enroute the river drains water from numerous glaciers including Pensi, Lalung, Chilung, Z2, Dalung, Latafsarfarka, Shafat, Runofarka, Kangriz, Techafarka and Lingsarimo. At Kharul, seven km north of the Kargil, Suru joins the Shingo, Dras river and flows alongside the Kargil Skardu road to join the Indus. The Gazetteer describes the Suru or Karche river:5
Nun area map
Suru river or Kartse river. A tributary of the Dras river, rises in the Himalayas, east of the Nun Kun peaks. Its course is northeast to Ringdum monastery, then due west to a little above Suru, after which it flows north-north-east and joins the Dras river just below Kargil. Total length about 60 miles. Its principal tributaries are the Nakpo-chu and Palumba-chu, which join it from the west and east respectively.
The journey to Nun begins at Kargil, as we drive along the Suru valley in a south westerly direction. The enchanting Suru valley, is one of the most scenic river valleys of Ladakh. While the upper parts of the valley are rugged, the valley floor is lush green and comes to life during spring, when the Tsox are in full bloom. Villages in the Suru are spread along the river bed, mostly in a linear fashion with meagre land holdings for agriculture. The life giving waters of the Suru irrigate the valley, where buck wheat, barley, turnips and mustard is primarily grown.
The road from the village of Sankoo to Pannikar, is the most scenic part of the valley with greenery in abundance all along. The land is sparsely populated,with vast open stretches of uninhabited land especially, after Parkachik. Shina, Purig, Balti and Ladakhi are the spoken languages. The Buddhist area of Kargil district, starts after Parkachik, from Ringdum Gompa onwards.
Today, as awareness and prosperity comes to this remote valley, a lot needs to be done to improve the overall quality of life especially in terms of communication, health, employment, education and road connectivity for its hardy inhabitants, who despite being bereft of several basic amenities, always maintain a cheerful disposition.
Nun is the king of the Nun-Kun massif. The mountain is surrounded by a galaxy of lower satellite peaks, rising above a vast glaciated region comprising of rivers, glaciers and peaks of varying heights and dimensions. To the north of Nun lies the Kangriz glacier.6 The nine kms long Kangriz glacier drops into the fast flowing Suru river, making it a fascinating sight when viewed from the valley below, between Parkachik and Gulmatonga. The northwest ridge of Nun splits the Kangriz glacier into two tributaries, namely east and west. Kun further splits the Kangriz glacier (east), into two.
The Kangriz glacier (east) which has a big catchment area, forms a cirque, between Kun (7087 m) Pinnacle peak (6952 m) and a rim of peaks. The glacier flows in a south westerly manner, breaking into a series of fascinating ice falls. The upper Kangriz glacier (east) formed between Kun, Pinnacle peak and the rim of other peaks joining White Needle and Kun was christened as the Snow Plateau by the Workman Expedition7 in 1906.
Nun is also known by other names. The surveyors in their maps called Nun as Ser and Kun as Mer. The locals of Tangol and around the villages of Parkachik and Pannikar, also call Nun, Nano. The Tibetans call it Shel Changma meaning the Crystal Willow.
The mountain is surrounded by a series of glaciers. To the east and southeast of Nun are the Fariabad and the Z1 glaciers. To the west of the mountain lies the huge snow field of the Kangriz glacier (west) separated by the northwest ridge of Nun. The Kangriz glacier is channelized between the head wall of Tanak (5822 m) to the west and the northwest ridge of Nun as it flows towards Parkachik. Further west is the Branktan glacier.8
Nun has four distinct ridges, interconnected with high mountain land mass, which gives shape to great faces of this mountain. The longest ridge of the mountain is the north ridge. This ridge emanating from the summit moves in a northerly direction. After, almost five hundred metres the ridge splits into two. The northwest ridge from here continues for almost four kms, where it abuts, splitting the Kangriz glacier into east and west. The other ridge takes shape of the northeast ridge and after one km, turns eastwards to form the east ridge of the mountain. The south ridge drops from the mountain after 500 m, giving way to the formidable south wall. The west ridge of the mountain is one the most prominent ridge lines when viewed from the west face. The ridge drops to 6000 m, before merging with the prominent west face. While the north and the south face of the mountain are big wall challenges, the east face too is riddled with great objective dangers of snow and ice. As compared to other ridges of the mountain, the west ridge is more direct and accessible.
Nun is traditionally approached from the northern approach, over the Kangriz or the Parkachik glacier. From the west, the road head is the village of Tangol, which gives access to the upper Sentik valley. The mountain can also be approached from Gulmatonga, through the Shafat and the Fariabad glaciers and from the south, from Kishtwar.
The earliest exploration to climb Nun, commenced towards end of the 19th century. In 1899 Major Lucas9 was the first to visit the area for climbing. In 1899, Major CG Bruce10 carried out a preliminary reconnaissance by ascending the Sentik La into the Barmal glacier, and then to Bot Kol. After a gap of 10 years, Dr Arthur Neve and Reverend CE Barton came up the Shafat glacier and studied the eastern flank of Nun. Dr Neve visited the area again, primarily to make map corrections. In 1903, the Dutch traveller Dr H Sillem explored the plateau, between Nun and Kun peaks.11
In 1906, William Hunter Workman and his wife Fanny Bullock Workman12 unveiled the Nun-Kun massif for the first time. Supported by a Courmayer guide and six well trained porters also from Courmayer, they entered from the Shafat glacier and explored the massif from the south and the east. They christened the beautiful 6600 m high snow pyramid on the east ridge of Nun as the White Needle. They made the first ascent of Pinnacle peak, with Fanny Bullock Workman setting a world altitude record for a woman climber. The Workmans exited from the Sentik La after crossing the Barmal or the Baranktan glacier. Although in the later years, controversies came up regarding their exploration and map recordings, theirs was a remarkable piece of exploration.13
In 1910 Dr Arthur Neve14 visited the area once again, this time with Reverend ME Wigram. In 1934, a British Army Officer, Major Roy Berry attempted Nun followed by an attempt by another Englishman J Waller, in 1937. In 1946, Major Berry returned to study the south side of Nun. A Swiss expedition in 1952, led by P Vittoz attempted to climb the mountain from the west. In 1953, a French team led by Bernard Pierre, approaching the mountain from Kishtwar and Fariabad valley, climbed the mountain from the west ridge. The summit was reached by Pierre Vittoz15 and Madame Claude Kogan, who set a world record of being the first woman to climb a mountain of this altitude.
After the area was re-opened to mountaineers, in 1971, an Indian expedition of the National Defence Academy (NDA) led by Flight Lieutenant KP Venugopal made the first Indian ascent of the mountain.16 In 1976 a Czech team made the first ascent of the formidable northwest ridge. In 1977, an American expedition, led by Gallen Rowell made the first ascent of the north ridge. The first ski descent of the mountain was made by Sylvain Sandon, who skied down to the base camp in four hours. In 1978, a Border Security Force team made the first Indian ski descent of the mountain.
The first ascent of the formidable east ridge of Nun was made in 1978, by an expedition of the Meiji Gakuin university, Japan led by Tsuguyasultami.
In 1980 the north and west face of the mountain was climbed by Americans and Austrians respectively. In 1982, the north east ridge of the mountain was climbed Alpine style by a German expedition. An Indian Army expedition of the Dogra Regiment, led by the legendary Colonel Prem Chand, made an ascent from the north ridge of the mountain.17
In 1984, High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS), the mountain warfare school of the Indian Army, led by Colonel GV Gautam18, created an all- time record by placing 45 climbers on the summit of Nun. This feat of putting up so many instructors and students on a seven thousander by a training establishment is perhaps unprecedented and unmatched anywhere in the world. In 1986, another HAWS training course, led by Major YC Chibber climbed the mountain from the west ridge. In 1987, an all women Japanese expedition led by Sachiko Kinoshita, scaled the mountain from the West Ridge.19 This was the first ascent of the mountain by an all ladies team.
In 1988 an Indian Army expedition of Gunners led by Lt Col HS Mann, scaled Nun from the west ridge as also from the east ridge as part of the same expedition. This was the first Indian ascent of the east ridge. The team also climbed Kun.20 In 1989, an International Camp of the UIAA, under leadership of Hukum Singh, was held on the Nun-Kun massif. The expedition was organized by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) in which 31 members from nine different countries participated.21 The IMF also conducted its Climbathon on Nun in 2015.
Nun thereafter has been climbed regularly by Indian, foreign and joint expeditions. Even today, the massif continues to be a very popular climbing objective, primarily because of the variety in climbing that it offers, as well as its impressive altitude. The mystical back drop of Ladakh and an interesting approach makes it even more alluring. Of late, commercial agencies also conduct guided expeditions to the mountain.
Nun Kun area map
The Black Cat Commandos of the National Security Guard (NSG), an Intervention Counter Terrorism Force of the Union of India, in post monsoon 2017, launched an expedition to scale Nun as part of its Pre-Everest expedition training cum selection camp. It was the only team attempting Nun in late September 2017. The 27-member strong team, a mix of youth and experience reached Leh on 25 Aug 2017. Brigadier Ashok Abbey was the Expedition Director and Technical Advisor and the team was led by Major Jay Prakash. After carrying out an acclimatization trek to Kond la 500 m, around Leh, the team reached Tangol, 3387 m, the road head in the Suru valley. Advance base camp was established in the upper Sentik valley, under the daunting face of Tanak at an altitude of 4637 m. Camp 1 was established on the massive snow field of the Kangriz glacier (west) at an altitude of 5485 m and Camp 2 was on the west ridge, at 6075 m.
On 14 September, the team moved down to ABC as high winds and bad weather hit the area. Camp 1 and 2, were reoccupied on 18 and 19 September, respectively. As more bad weather was expected with an early onset of winter, the team decided to directly attempt the summit from Camp 2 and skip camp 3, which is normally established at 6507 m.
Kun, below eye level from the Nun summit
On 20 September seven members and five Sherpas, left camp 2 at 1:00 am. Five members, under Mrinmoy Banerjee reached the summit at 11:00 am, after a gruelling ascent of ten hours directly from Camp 2, no mean achievement! After winding up high camps, the Black Cat Commandos reached Leh on 22 September 2017.
The team ensured that all non-degradable waste was removed from the mountain and brought down to the road head at Tangol. In addition, members assisted soldiers of the Indian army, in their endeavour to clean the base camp, which regretfully had a huge quantity of litter left by previous expeditions.
During their stay, the team observed that the lower reaches of Nun are rich in wildlife. The ever vibrant Himalayan marmot is seen in good numbers in the Sentik valley. Bharal too was sighted by the expedition along with Himalayan fox. Snow Leopard though not spotted by the team, has been reportedly sighted in the valley. The Sentik valley is also rich in flora - orchids, asters, edelweiss, anemones, and butter cups and in some cases even gentians were sighted.
As we descended from the mountain for the last time in the climbing season of 2017, from the corner of the Kangriz plateau we turned around to have our last look of this legendary mountain. In the fast fading evening sunlight, I saw Nun basking in all its glory. The mountain was draped in a striking golden hue, shining like a king’s armour, with a snow plume, skimming the centre of the crown of the majestic mountain face. With awe, we gazed at nature’s grand spectacle unfolding in front of us. We stood there momentarily mesmerized, soaking in this majestic sight! Our last audience with Nun was over, as the evening clouds moved in to pay their daily obeisance, to their great mountain king!
The summit ridge. The summit is behind the first bump
Panoramic view of Kishtwar Himalaya, looking south, southeast and southwest from the upper summit slopes of Nun
The mountain king of the Suru valley, was soon lost behind a veil of clouds.
Brig Abbey has written a description of the area as well as an account of the ascent of Nun from the west ridge in September 2017, by a team of the National Security Guard.
A highly experienced mountaineer, Brigadier Ashok Abbey has been climbing for more than 37 years. He has climbed extensively in the Great Ranges, namely the Himalaya, Karakoram and adjoining mountain ranges. He served as the Deputy Commandant and Chief Instructor at the High Altitude Warfare School, Gulmarg until recently. He was President of the Himalayan Club from 2010 till 2015.