Climbing the summit ridge of Brumkhangse
We must love the mountains as we find them, and, to be frank, climbers are not averse to fast access and shorter walks, especially aging specimens of the breed.
Far up the misted Lachung valley of northern Sikkim, the road-side sign proclaimed:-
BRO is seen everywhere
India’s Border Roads Organization is strong on self-promotion, but not so good at poetry. We smiled and posed for a photo, then continued our journey—by jeep!
Border Roads Organization sign at Yumthang in North Sikkim
In the last 30 years road construction in hill areas has transformed access to the mountains. Approach treks have progressively shortened. Long-time classic routes—such as the 20-day Lamayuru to Darcha trek —are now largely motorized. A sense of loss and sadness is the initial reaction to such development. The senses are offended by the noise of grinding engines, the smell of exhaust fumes and the sight of landslips and erosion along the road line. The biggest road-building projects have been driven by national security needs, to face down the Chinese along the Tibetan border, but these and smaller branch roads have also provided lifelines to dying communities, bringing modern education, welfare and health services within reach.
Note: See HJ 65, Note on p. 169; HJ 66, p. 164 for 2 maps.
Nama Chuchay Ri route-line from base camp
Mountaineers cannot be the arbiters of such profound social and environmental issues. It doesn’t do to be eternally regretful and nostalgic over what is lost. We must love the mountains as we find them, and, to be frank, climbers are not averse to fast access and shorter walks, especially aging specimens of the breed.
Two climbs in 2018 at opposite ends of the Himalaya taught me to enjoy the exploratory opportunities offered by India’s new road-side summits.
Zanskar’s Marriage Peak: Pensi la is a wonderful place to wander in a chill June sunset. Ranks of clouds and hazy ridge-lines spread east and disappear into the twilight somewhere beyond Padum. Fabulous glacier trenches emerge from the northern walls of the Greater Himalaya, adorned by beautiful spires of snow. Forty years ago mountaineers trekked for four days to reach this 4400 m pass. Today, we had driven all the way from Lamayuru in 12 hours.
Our base camp was just six km up the Ringdom valley, the first major valley west of the Pensi la. The trek took four hours, a stroll through fields of edelweiss and over the river flats. We left the buses at 4000 m and struck base camp at 4150 m. Never have a team of packhorses had it so easy.
For the next two weeks our team took over the packhorse duties to forge a route 12 km up the Ringdom glacier and on to the upper slopes of the spectacular Chiling peaks. The 2018 monsoon timed its arrival badly and nine of us spent two days trapped in high camps on 6349 m Chiling I as the snows piled up to tent height. We got out courtesy of GPS navigation, knee-deep trail-breaking and a supply of glucose gel packs. Back in base camp we had just three days in which to salvage a consolation from the trip. Towering 1600 m above base camp was a rather fine summit, the culminating point of a succession of overlapping ridges and forepeaks that we’d admired from the road.
A strong team might leave Pensi la and start the climbing on this splendid integrale within an hour of leaving their car, but we were neither strong nor time-rich. Instead, we reckoned that we could make a direct climb from camp to summit with a great deal more speed and less difficulty. Three of us – the die-hards of the team – packed food and clothes for an open bivouac and scrambled up the flanks of the access canyon on a drizzly afternoon. The canyon opened into a glacier valley and we cleared a bivouac site in a boulder-field at 4890 m altitude
Lalung valley and Lalung peaks
Unnamed peaks south of Nama Chuchay Ri
At nightfall my phone pinged into life with an incoming text. Instead of the usual weather update it was a request from my daughter’s boyfriend for her hand in marriage. Talk about catching me at a weak moment! I typed my assent and sat back on our gravel ledge feeling richly content. My companions, young and eager engineer Lawrence and dogged ex-serviceman turned gardener Bob, were already bedded in their bivouac sacks, doubtless wondering how they’d weather a six-hour night without sleeping bags.
For all we knew, this peak might be unclimbed! Our expectation was to reach the summit by midday and return to base by nightfall. A steep rock step, half-way up the south-west ridge, was the one imponderable in the plan. We’d brought an extra rope, pitons and ice hammers to deal with it.
At 1:00 a.m. Lawrence announced reveille1. After a brew of tea and a mug of muesli we packed, dressed, and stowed our bivouac kit in a large orange polythene bag for collection on our descent. The night sky was partially clear, and earlier snowfall had petered out. There was relief to get our chilled bodies into upward action. A field of huge boulders interlaced with runnels of snow climbed 100 m above our camp. The terrain opened into broader snowfields and we reached the mountain’s south-west ridge at 5100 m as twilight spread over the Zanskar ranges. Through the golden hour of sunrise we plodded purposefully up the lower ridge. The jagged Nun-Kun range took the sun’s first flush, and the myriad spurs and ravines of the Ringdom valley were soon etched in brilliant light. Two magnificent peaks, both likely to be virgin, were caught in full display immediately to our south.
By 8:00 a.m. we gained a forepeak before the rock step at 5450 m. An abyss opened on our right and on our left ice slopes dropped into the glacier valley where we had bivouacked. High-altitude fell- walking became proper mountaineering and Lawrence was spooked as he teetered down a narrow ramp under the forepeak. With some goading he recovered his wits and led us to a col under the rock step. I led 65 m up 55° crusted snow to gain the rocks. The outcome of our endeavour now depended on the 10 m prow at the top of the step.
In the shade I couldn’t decipher any cracks and I feared a switch to unclimbable slabs once the prow was turned. The joys of pioneering are balanced by doubts of the unknown. Though loose the ground was easy as far as the prow. Steeper moves of grade III brought me to the edge where the rock stratification became smooth and slabby. A six-inch covering of snow masked the rock. I shuffled up a slab on my knees, dug out a flake and placed one of the three cams I’d brought on the climb. With that surety I dared to stand up and layback the flake to reach a perfect crows-nest stance with a spike and peg belay.
Bob and Lawrence on SW Ridge of Nama Chuchay Ri at dawn
Our midday radio-call to cook Naveen at base camp gave the cheery report that he might expect us down for dinner.
“We are about an hour from the top.”
After a snaking ridge the slope stiffened into a face of 50˚. Two isolated boulders were the sole landmarks. Progress slowed to a dull trudge in deep soft snow. Each step had to be stamped out two or three times. A skyline beckoned but taunted us by bending back in a gradual convexity.
Our happy anticipation of success ebbed and I became a detached automaton fuelled solely by an angry determination not to give in. Mists drew in and a light snowfall commenced. At around 2:30 p.m. I gained a levelling only to see a further rise ahead. Lawrence became trapped to his thighs in the snow. For fifteen minutes Bob and I pulled on the rope while Lawrence thrashed out a trench and inched upwards.
I ordered, “I’ll run the rope out up this last bit. Leave your bags and follow when the rope comes tight.”
A decisive edge of snow appeared in the murk. Being wary of a cornice I stepped carefully on to the crest, and looked right to see a narrow rock ridge running a further 80 m out to a pinnacle that was unmistakably three metres higher. We were pushing into the danger zone, far from rescue with deteriorating weather. Furthermore, we’d left all our rock gear back at the step.
When they arrived roles were reversed. Lawrence was energized to reach the top point. Diminutive Bob had clearly had enough, but followed my lead down to a notch, then over several rock steps to the final pinnacle. Throwing caution aside I clambered on to the arete, my only sling and karabiner in my teeth, to lasso the top. Combining use of knees and an à cheval straddle I made irreversible moves to the top block, draped my sling and lowered off. The height was 5751 m.
The initial descent was swift. Facing in to the slope we daggered our axes and descended 200 m in half-an-hour. At the top of the rock step a slight clearance brought some warmth to chilled fingers. Having been used for ground insulation the previous night, the ropes had become wet and were now stiff with ice. The abseil of the step was additionally beset by loose blocks, snagging projections and a diagonal line. I took 40 minutes to untangle the ropes and get down to the next stance.
The 7:00 p.m. radio message to base had none of the heady optimism expressed seven hours earlier.
“We may be down….. sometime after midnight.”
“If you come, please wake me and I will make tea and food.”
A long night stretched ahead. We clambered back over the forepeak and retraced our steps down the lower ridge. The tracks were interminable, weaving through little outcrops.
“How on earth did we climb so far this morning? How easy it all seemed.”
Come 9:00 p.m. we found our trekking poles at the base of the ridge. Our night vision was complicated by a gentle snowfall.
Our bivouac ledge was a pinprick in a wilderness of boulders. The location was stored as a GPS waypoint, but to my horror I got a ‘Battery Low’ reading when I switched on my device. Our tracks were now the sole means of finding the site, but after a hundred metres of plunging through rotten snow-banks and slithering across wet boulders we lost the trail. We blundered onwards by instinct alone, with Lawrence giving regular height reports from his altimeter- watch. Meanwhile, the GPS lay warming in my inner pocket. At 4950 m I switched it on, and quickly went to ‘Go To’ mode.
“Bivi – 92 metres, 32 degrees.”
We got our fix before the battery died. Out came the compass and we staggered onwards until—at close to 11:00 p.m.—we saw the orange bag, sitting forlornly on our rock, half-covered in snow.
Our second bivouac commenced. We peeled off wet clothing layers, shook out our saturated bivouac bags and made our beds of misery. Yet there was great relief to stop, ease our aching backs and stretch out our legs after 20 hours of continuous effort. Spirits were further improved on discovery of two teabags and sufficient gas to make a hot brew. We had five hours to wait for daylight. At the first glimmer of dawn we packed with haste and plunged downslope, and by 9:00 a.m. were sat down to omelettes at base camp. I was mightily relieved that we had touched that highest point.
Resting at the Pensi la road next day we looked back to see our peak as a slender beauty buttressed by a series of snowy spurs. I thought of my daughter and soon to be son-in-law, and decided that, should it be a virgin summit, the mountain must be called the Marriage Peak. According to our horseman, that’s Nama Chuchay Ri in Ladakhi.
Brumkhangse – a Sikkim Gem: The mists of northern Sikkim hide a wonderful array of mountains. Several of them are still virgin for they lie on or close to the Tibetan frontier and access is forbidden by the Indian Army. Paradoxically, these peaks – 6362 m Chombu and 6889 m Kangchengyao among them – have become some of the more accessible in the Eastern Himalaya thanks to the military road constructed up the Lachung Chu to a terminus known as Zero Point at 4850 m just six kilometres from the border.
Brumkhangse, classed as an ‘alpine peak’ by the Sikkim Government, is one of the few mountains in northern Sikkim for which permits can be obtained. At 5635 m altitude and with motor-road access to its base camp the peak offers the chance to make a Himalayan climb in a two-week schedule.
The 2018 monsoon started early and lasted well beyond its normal end-date. Our journey from Gangtok turned from tourist jaunt to survival test when a cloudburst caught us lingering over lunch at Mangan village in the Teesta valley. Our drivers bundled us into our taxis and set off up the gorge on a white-knuckle ride over land-slips and broken roads. Drenched locals ran for their homes. A detour through a school sports field avoided one landslide. Then, as the rain reached its highest pitch we got stuck behind a hesitant motor-biker under a vertical wall of gravel that was visibly bulging in saturation. We got over and minutes later the wall collapsed. From Chumthang the road climbed a series of hairpins to Lachung, a burgeoning village of Army camps and tourist hotels at 2600 m altitude. The Lachung Chu runs parallel to the border where Chinese and Indian soldiers jostle over a few square kilometres of disputed but barren land at 5000 m. We had only gained our permits as result of a relaxation in tension following a Modi-Xi summit, and we reckoned ourselves the first foreigners to be allowed to climb in the valley since Julie-Ann Clyma and Roger Payne visited in 2007.
In springtime Indian nationals flock up this valley to touch the snows and see the rhododendron in bloom. From Lachung the road climbs for 35 km to Zero Point. Base camp for Brumkhangse is at Shiv Mandir at 3900 m. Our cook Naveen, LO Bhinodh and three porters drove up direct to set camp. We disembarked from the cars at 3100 m and took a gentle acclimatization walk up the valley, stopping a night by a hot spring near Yumthang en-route. Despite prevalent drizzle the walk through the rhododendron sanctuary was relaxing. No one in my team of five had ever been above 4500 m.
Base camp was pitched on a secluded quarried terrace just off the road and below Shiv Mandir settlement, which comprises a police post and a grim collection of corrugated huts where the road-workers live for the summer season. A soothing mix of silver pine, rhododendron and azalea scrub clothed the valley sides. The only detectable breeze came up-valley from the south, maintaining a blanket of mist over Brumkhangse whose summit was only five kilometres distant from the road.
We climbed to the monsoon snow-line and pitched an advance base at 4540 m where we endured three days of drizzling snowfall. Porter Dawa, 69 year-old Dave and I made the crucial load-carry up the Brumkhangse glacier to the site of a summit camp at 5135 m – 10 hours in knee-deep snow and white-out. The next morning in the first sunshine of the trip we moved camp with Sue, Anita and Lynne. En- route Carl was beset with breathing difficulty and forced to retreat back to base.
Another clear morning allowed us to plough a trail to the col at 5370 m between Brumkhangse north and the higher Brumkhangse south, gaining high points for Sue and Anita. We had but one day of the trip left for a summit bid. Dave, Lynne and I planned a midnight reveille. After six days of disciplined effort, would we be granted our hours of freedom and moments of glory?
1:30 a.m. “I can’t find them anywhere…” For 20 minutes Lynne had misplaced her trousers and the summit climb was in jeopardy if she didn’t get her head together. Dave and I stood outside shivering in the damp night air.
“Why not borrow Anita’s pair?” I suggested. “But she’s too tall…” came the reply. “But you can just stuff the leg-ends down your gaiters.” Lynne was a bag of nerves, but this suggestion seemed to solve the issue.
Border peaks from Brumkhangse
View north from Brumkhangse photo-diagram
Dawn on Kangchendzonga from Brumkhangse
She finally emerged at 2:00 a.m. and we set off, following yesterday’s trail, while Anita and Sue went back to bed. The tracks were firm and frozen and we reached the col at 4:00 a.m. A cloying mist suggested that the weather might be reverting to the soup of drizzle that plagued the early days of the trip, but as we gained height stars appeared through the mist veil. Today we could get lucky!
The darkness was still complete when we moved off towards the steep north arête of 5635 m south peak. The arête steepened from 40 to 55°. The pristine snow formed a sharp edge a few feet to our left. A hundred metres up the snow turned to ice. I had brought two ice screws and placed the longer of these to make a belay. Within minutes the night gave way to a lurid dawn. Beneath an indigo layer of high cloud a brilliant flush of light caught the east face of Kangchenjunga, 30 miles away. The summit was crowned by a double lenticular capping. I hadn’t prepared for the revelation. My camera was in my sack and when I pulled it out the lens was jammed with ice. Balancing on the ice slope I grabbed the lens housing and dragged the zoom out manually until the motor worked. With seconds to spare before the mountain lapsed back to shaded slumber I captured precious images.
At 6:00 a.m. we topped out from the arête and got our first view the summit ramparts. The final ridge was defended by a steep wall choked with powder snow. Belayed from another ice screw I surmounted a vertical step and ploughed a line to the foot of the summit crest. The wall was only 40 m high; it had looked a hundred! Rarely in the Himalaya is a summit climb shorter than expected. After the trials of previous days we deserved this break.
Brumkhangse route (photo Julie-Ann Clyma)
A few wisps of fog drifted past but the sun burned hot in our faces as we broke the trail to the top. The ridge was coated in a foot of aerated powder snow, so light that little effort was needed to plug the steps. Oh, for a pair of skis up here! Soon after 8:00 a.m. we reached the top. Summit celebrations, for once, were not rushed. The Yorkshire White Rose flag was unfurled, followed by a string of local prayer flags. Dave’s face was burning and his beard was beginning to straggle but he still looked like a man ten years younger. Lynne had belied both her tiny frame (45 kg) and a long-term blood disorder with a plucky performance. They were thrilled and proud of their achievement.
We gazed west down the gorges and over clusters of lower peaks to the Lachen valley, then back east over the border to the peaks of Bhutan. To our north-east the border peaks filled the skyline, their southern faces plastered in monsoon snow, but their north sides, dropping to the Tibetan plateau, dry and rocky. Our descent proceeded smoothly and by 12:30 p.m. we regained the tents. There was no urgency. We could drink, eat and relax knowing that tomorrow our only task was to get kit and bodies down off the glacier and back to base.
At 5:00 a.m. on 11 October a pale light filtered through my tent wall. I stirred from sleep feeling remarkably warm and insulated despite lying alone in our single-skin bivouac tent. The explanation soon dawned. The tent was coated with two-inches of fresh snow. Peeking outside I estimated there were six inches of snow on the ground. The enveloping white-out promised more of the same. Safety lay a thousand metres down in the forests of Yumthang. Could we but hope that the porters would come up to the glacier snout to help us? I dressed, booted-up, packed sack and then dismantled my tent from the inside. Dave produced a mug of hot Tang. The usual cheery Yorkshire gossip dwindled when the girls deflated their airbeds. A grim day began. We were on our own until we could quit the glacier. Six wayward sexagenarians with 20 kilo loads wallowed and occasionally tumbled in knee-deep snow for three hours. Above the glacier snout, when close to despair, I yelled into the mist. Faint voices replied. Our three porters had come!
Five hours later we laid down sacks down at the road and shared hugs of happiness with Carl, Naveen, Binodh and porters. Mugs of chai were followed by a late lunch of paneer, rice and chips. Camp was dismantled within an hour. There’d be no multi-day walk out for us! We were promptly bundled into jeeps for an evening drive down to the bright lights, cold beers and hot water of Lachung.
“Don’t gossip, let him drive”, and “If you love her, divorce speed”, advised the signboards as we rode the serpentine descent. We could not help but smile and gave thanks to BRO.
Martin Moran describes two climbs in 2018 at opposite ends of the Himalaya the common thread being that both were easily accessed by motor roads hence he calls them ‘ India’s new road-side summits’. The first peak is Zanskar’s Marriage Peak – Martin reached Pensi la from Lamayuru in 12 hours whereas earlier it would have been a four-day trek. The walk from here to base camp was four hours. The second is Brumkhangse 5635 m – a Sikkim gem which has become accessible, thanks to a motor-road access to its base camp.
MARTIN MORAN is one of Britain’s most experienced mountain guides and the author of several mountain books. He has achieved many ‘firsts’ in exploratory mountaineering and major mountain traverses, including the first and only completion of Scotland’s Munros within a single winter and in 1993 the first continuous traverse of the 4000 metre summits of the Alps (75 peaks in 52 days), a time as yet unsurpassed.
Martin has a special passion for the Indian Himalaya and has made over 25 expeditions to the Uttarakhand, Himachal and Kashmir ranges—most of them as a mountain guide, and most with pioneering objectives. His first ascents include Nanda Kot South Face, Changuch, Nilkanth West Ridge and several peaks in the Adi Kailash range and an attempt on the unclimbed NE Ridge of Nanda Devi East in September 2015.
On 26th May 2019, Martin Moran and seven other climbers died on Nanda Devi East, one of his favourite mountains.
Martin will be missed at the Himalayan Journal for his prolific and timely contribution every single time he covered new ground in the Himalaya.
His last mail to me before he left for this expedition was a beautiful tribute to his friend Andy Nisbet.
Proud to have known you Martin!