Desert Island Climbs in the Himalaya

Geoff Cohen

Dorje Lakpa

Dorje Lakpa setting off up West ridge

From the summit unclimbed peaks surrounded us on all sides and memories flooded back of forty years of Himalayan wanderings.

For over seventy years the BBC has presented a weekly programme called ‘Desert Island Discs’ in which a celebrity is asked to choose eight pieces of music that they would like to take with them if they were going to be marooned, like Robinson Crusoe, on a desert island. The interest of the programme is not only in the music but also in the snippets of personal biography that the interviewer elicits from the famous guest between each of the tracks. At least thirty years ago a climbing magazine had the idea of adapting this format and asking well-known climbers to choose their ‘Desert Island Climbs’. This then became something of a pastime that any climbers could enjoy to while away an evening in a hut or bivouac. The essence of such personal choices is not, to my mind, the peaks themselves; it is rather the quality of the experience on that particular ascent.

For my own satisfaction, and possibly of interest to others, I have selected eight very modest Himalayan climbs that gave me the kind of mountaineering pleasure that I would be happy to savour again on my desert island. They were nearly all first ascents, and genuinely exploratory in that we knew nothing about the peaks before we got to them. Most were unofficial trips to peaks of around 6000 m, usually just a party of two or three. To my mind the walk to the mountain is often just as interesting and memorable as the climb itself. We sometimes just arrived at a roadhead and found a small number of local people to help carry loads to a base camp. This informal approach allowed friendly interaction, as ‘young lads’ might be quite interested to see what lay up a valley they had never explored. Mind you, they weren’t always so young – our Wakhi porter who came with us to the Yoksugoz glacier was 83!!

Borumbar peak, Karakoram 1975

In 1975 five of us drove overland to Pakistan. We stayed in Rawalpindi with the fabled Colonel ‘Buster’ Goodwin who was hospitality itself.

Des Rubens and Borumbar Peak

Des Rubens and Borumbar Peak

Somehow we got a flight to Gilgit, jeeps to Yasin and a four day walk to a base camp on the Borumbar glacier. Our primary objective was Thui I (6600 m) but having established a tent on a high saddle Des Rubens and I decided to spend a day climbing two lower peaks of about 6000 m that rise from the E flank of the Borumbar glacier. Although these peaks sent down long complicated rock ridges towards our glacier base camp, we had outflanked most of such difficulties by a glacier approach to the saddle. An early start gave us good snow up to our first peak, then a descent of perhaps 150m to a col, followed by a slightly more challenging mixed slope to the second, higher peak. The summit here was an excellent rock pinnacle, which Des led in fine style. Not only were we rewarded by fantastic views from Koyo Zom right around to Thui II, we were also intrigued to find a bird’s foot on the summit, perhaps the remains of an eagle’s breakfast? Embarrassingly much of the rest of our expedition was ‘misjudgements on stilts’ as we failed twice on Thui III and once on Thui II, both excellent peaks.

Viewpoint peak from Prul side

Viewpoint peak from Prul side

Viewpoint peak, Zanskar1977

Des Rubens and I teamed up with Rob Collister to explore the then fairly untravelled Zanskar peaks, only a year or two after the area was first opened to foreign parties. We walked from the Suru valley to Pensila and then carried huge loads up the long Durung Drung glacier to camp below an obvious attractive peak of about 5800 m. Having been ill for a few days, and not being well acclimatized I found this climb less thankfully enjoyable. It was really quite a short day. We left our camp about 5: a.m. and followed a glacier to a col north of the peak in about three hours. A mixed ice and rock ridge took us to the top in a further three and a half hours. We were rewarded with a splendid view not just of the Durung Drung peaks but also those of Kishtwar like Sickle Moon. We also were able to fix on an objective above the Prul glacier that we later climbed, calling it Delusion Peak as it was a lot lower than the map’s spot height.

Drifika Dick Isherwood and Des Rubens on the approach

Drifika Dick Isherwood and Des Rubens

Dorje Lakpa, Nepal 1979

On my first visit to Nepal I teamed up with Dick Isherwood who knew the country well and two fellow Scottish climbers, Dave Broadhead and Anne MacIntyre. The approach walk via Panch Pokhari was idyllic in spite of some rainy weather and a portion of jungle bashing. We established ourselves on the Linshing glacier with a fabulous view of our mountain’s west ridge. An exploratory and acclimatizing foray allowed us to place a tent on a col at 6000m. After a rest at base camp, where Anne remained in support, we returned and launched up the ridge to camp on an exposed ledge at 6300 m. For 400m above us the south flank of the ridge glistened with hard ice that we would have found too hard to climb with our limited equipment. We were saved by a thin strip of good nevé adjacent to the corniced edge, just wide enough to climb, with occasional glimpses to the brown Tibetan plateau beyond. We had a wonderful second camp on an accommodating snow ledge at about 6700m, now with views back south to overlook our approach from the hazy Nepali foothills, while the very impressive W face of Dorje Lakpa II fascinated us—suggesting possibilities for the future that are still unclimbed. On our third day we reached the summit too late in the afternoon to gain more than a few misty glimpses of Lonpo Gang and other nearby peaks. It was only three weeks since I had left home, so I felt well pleased with our success, which was largely due to Dick’s research, good judgement and sound planning. On our descent we camped by ‘Do Pokhari’, two tiny lakes at about 5300m where ancient tridents implied that this was possibly the limit of the wanderings of brave sadhus in this remote region.

Peak B between Jangpar West and Kangla glaciers

Peak B between Jangpar West and Kangla glaciers
Darmyani Peak east ridge at dawn

Darmyani Peak east ridge at dawn

Drifika, Karakoram 1980

Three of us (Dick Isherwood, Des Rubens and I) made an unofficial trip to the Hushe valley, and walked along the Charakusa glacier to a base camp underneath the peak now known as K7 West. The plethora of tremendous rock spires was astonishing. I now wonder why we did not attempt any technical rock, but probably this was just as well since we had very limited gear. We spent five days attempting the west face of K7 west, and got quite close to the summit before retreating. Chastened, we looked for an easier peak and decided on one that we could see at the head of a side glacier running south from opposite our camp. We had no idea that it had a name, and had in fact succumbed to a Japanese party a couple of years before. (We found some of their litter on our approach. Ours was probably the second ascent.) Following a comfortable camp in a wide snow bowl at about 5800m, we had an excellent day for our summit climb. The final section was on snow-covered slabs to a narrow ridge and a summit spike with astounding views. Unfortunately darkness overtook us on the descent and we had a cold bivouac without gear just one abseil away from safety. Although my toes took some months to recover, this remains in my memory as an excellent climb, enhanced by the enjoyable companionship. Thanks to my companions’ love of food, our camp was well stocked and returning after our unplanned night out we had a splendid day relaxing and eating to our hearts’ content while gazing from the tent door at the unsurpassed beauty of K7 and Link Sar.


Nandakhani (Mungo Ross)

Giabul Nala

Mama Ri in Namkha Topko branch of Giabul Nala (Des Rubens)

Peak B (5990m), Jangpar West, Zanskar 1983

In 1983 I did a fine trek over the Baralacha la and Hamta jot with my partner Sue, before we teamed up with Barry Owen for a climbing trip to the Miyar nala. At that time we knew nothing about the climbing possibilities, our only information being from a friend who had made a trek to the Kangla jot. We arrived by bus in Udaipur and I persuaded three Nepalese men who were working on the roads to carry some loads up the valley for a few days. They accompanied us to a camp shortly beyond the snout of the Miyar glacier from where we humped our own loads to a camp at about 5400m on the Jangpar west glacier. Following a recce we succeeded on a fine 6000m peak on the watershed with Zanskar which gave about 200m of interesting rock. From this summit we espied another peak of interest, which Barry and I climbed a couple of days later. It was one of those rare occasions when things go amazingly smoothly and the mountains spring no nasty surprises. From a col we had an ascending traverse on excellent steep snow to another col and then an easy but beautiful snow ridge to the summit. It was gratifying to be able to descend the far side of our peak to a previously unseen glacier and then cross our first col back to our camp. Perfect weather had made a truly enjoyable day. We called our peaks A and B (THJ41, 184-6).

Darmyani Peak, Batura,Karakoram 1987

After exploring the Yoksugoz glacier and climbing a minor outlier of Kuk Sar, Sue and I returned down the Batura valley looking forward to a few relaxing days eating apricots in Hunza. But as we passed Yashpirt we were suddenly captivated by the notion of a quick sally up Peak 6090m, which we subsequently learned has the name Darmyani. Leaving as much gear as possible under boulders we crossed the Batura glacier and climbed up vegetated slopes to a bivvy, passing en route a lonely Wakhi shepherdess playing her flute and silhouetted against the sky. We left again about midnight and toiled up long scree and snow slopes to attain a col and a stunning morning view of Shispare. The ridge to Darmyani looked glorious in the morning sun, but the snow deteriorated rapidly. After pitching up some exposed slopes Sue decided to stop at a small horizontal snow ledge, while I continued for another 45 minutes to the summit. I had too brief a time to relish the gorgeous panorama before returning. A long descent got us back to our bivvy just as darkness fell.

Nandakhani, Kumaon 1998

Exhausting travel on public buses got us (Mungo Ross and I) to Munsiari, where we found three young lads willing to carry loads for us. The walk up to Martoli was full of history and fabulous scenery, but steeped in the accounts of Longstaff, Tilman and Murray I was only too aware of how much has changed in the Gori Ganga valley since the days of free flow of trade with Tibet. Martoli was almost deserted and I felt saddened to see so many ramshackle houses with gardens full of waist-high nettles. It was early in the season and only one local man, Natho Singh, was in residence, but he was most hospitable. The mountains were still smothered in spring snow and an exploration of Burphu Dura was unpromising. We trekked up the Shalang Gad and said farewell to our porters at the base of a pretty curving moraine ridge that led to the snows of Nandakhani. Over a couple of days we prospected up the lower slopes enjoying lovely hard snow in the early morning but enervating heat in the middle of the day. We were ‘lucky’ to get a slightly cloudier day for the summit where we enjoyed views of Nanda Kot looming above and the Kalabaland range far across the Gori valley.

Mama Ri, Zanskar 2012

By now aged 65 I was happy to have plenty of porters help us to reach base camp in the NamkhaTopko branch of the Giabul Nala in southern Zanskar. We were an official party of six, my biggest ever expedition, all good friends from Scotland. We even had high altitude porters, who helped us establish an advanced base and then a camp at about 5200m. Finally my old friend Des Rubens and I were alone to attempt a fine peak of 6150m. We took a day or two to acclimatize, then made our ascent via a short exposed mixed section of about 200m, followed by a long easy snow ridge. Although many Zanskar peaks are too dry and rubbly to offer attractive climbing in summer we were lucky that this one was in good condition; it even had a north face that would have provided a nice steep direct climb had we been stronger. From the summit unclimbed peaks surrounded us on all sides and memories flooded back of forty years of Himalayan wanderings.

Renowned mountaineer Geoff Cohen, in his words—“I have selected eight very modest Himalayan climbs that gave me the kind of mountaineering pleasure that I would be happy to savour again on my desert island. They were nearly all first ascents, and genuinely exploratory in that we knew nothing about the peaks before we got to them.”

About the Author

Geoff Cohen is a retired medical statistician, having worked at the University of Edinburgh and in the private sector in the USA. He has enjoyed climbing and getting lost in Scotland since the 1960s.

He first visited India in 1973 and has returned to the Himalaya at irregular intervals ever since, fascinated by the variety of experience to be had.

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