Mark Richey and Steve Swenson
As I said goodbye to Link Sar in the fading light, I thought how lucky we were, an amazing team of friends on one of the most breathtaking summits in the world!
From 31st July to 8th August 2019, Graham Zimmerman, Steve Swenson, Chris Wright and Mark Richey made the first ascent of Link Sar (7041 m) in the Central Pakistani Karakoram via its 3400 m southeast face. Having been the objective of at least nine expeditions, the first ascent of this peak has been a highly sought-after prize for the climbing community. The team is calling their route starting from Advanced Base Camp, the Southeast Face (M6+ WI 4 90°, 2300 m). But the grade does a poor job of portraying the challenge of this route that Karakoram veteran Swenson calls “one of the most complex and difficult routes I have ever climbed.”
Swenson originally attempted the route in 2001 with George Lowe, Joe Terravecchia, Steve Larson, Andy Tuthill and Eric Winkleman. It was an amazing opportunity for the team since the face lies very near the contested border between Pakistan and India (known as the Actual Ground Position Line or AGPL), and the eastern aspects of the mountain had not been permitted since the mid-1980s when the Siachen conflict broke out. The team did not make it very high on the peak, but it inspired Swenson to return, and he made repeated attempts over the following decade to get another permit for the peak but was denied.
Over the ensuing years, several attempts were made on the peak’s western aspect via the Charakusa valley. In 2015, Swenson and Zimmerman, along with Scott Bennett, made the first ascent of nearby Changi Tower (6500 m) via its north ridge (M6 5.10 A2, 1200 m) starting from the Nangmah valley and over a pass onto the upper Lachit glacier. From that climb they looked over into the Kondus valley and caught an excellent view of the massive southeast face of Link Sar, supplying more information and motivation to attempt the mountain.
Climbing to Camp 2
In 2017, it looked like the area was once again opening to climbing, and Swenson and Zimmerman were finally given a permit to access Link Sar’s southeast face. They also invited Wright on the expedition as he and Zimmerman had formed a strong partnership in the mountains of Alaska. During this two-and-a-half-month expedition, the team experienced atrocious weather, and after multiple attempts reached only 5900 m. Despite their failure to climb the peak that season, the team discovered a route that threaded its way through much of the face’s immense complexities and objective hazards.
In 2019, the three climbers, alongside Mark Richey, with whom Swenson won a Piolet d’Or in 2012 for the first ascent of Saser Kangri II in the Eastern Karakoram, returned to the southeast face. They departed their homes in the United States on 4th June. The approach to the peak is made via the Kondus valley and then up the Kaberi glacier. A road runs adjacent to the glacier and up to same BC at 3600 m as was used in 2001 and 2017 where they arrived on 10th June.
The Kondus valley is one of the deepest in the Karakoram and its walls are precipitously steep. On most 7000 m peaks, a nearby easier 6000 m peak would be used to acclimatize before starting an alpine style ascent of the primary objective. But no such peak exists in the Kondus, so the team was forced to use the lower portions of their route on the southeast face for acclimatization. To help with this, they set up an ABC 1100 m above BC. To establish this camp, the Americans hired five local porters to carry loads up a via ferrata of fixed ropes they established to ensure safety along a series of easy, but exposed, low 5th class slabs. From the top of these slabs that rise out of the Kaberi glacier, the route traversed up large beautiful alpine meadows to ABC.
The team established ABC on 5th July, but they were forced to wait for conditions on the mountain to improve. The 2018-19 winter in the Karakoram was one of the snowiest on record, making the mountain very dangerous. This fact that was emphasized by a size 3 wet slab avalanche that came within 100 metres of ABC on 7th July. Thankfully, the weather in early to mid-July was clear and very warm which allowed for conditions to improve. On 15th July they followed the 2017 route up steep glacial and snow terrain to Camp I at 5200 m.
Climbing above Camp III
Two days later Chris and Graham led the crux technical section up ten pitches of sustained M6+ and a snow ridge to reach the top of a broad 600 m high rock wall flanked on both sides by active seracs. Climbing at night to avoid the intense heat at this elevation and aspect, they reached Camp II at 5900 m and the high point from two years earlier. After spending a couple of nights at this altitude the team considered themselves sufficiently acclimatized to attempt the route.
On the morning of 31st July, the team started their alpine style ascent starting from ABC at 7:30 am. During the cool morning hours, they climbed back to Camp I where they spent the afternoon resting before repeating the lower crux of the route that this time was in very warm, wet and subsequently challenging conditions. Arriving at Camp II around 9:30 am, they once again stopped to wait out the heat of the day and rest after climbing through the night.
The following morning, they departed just before dawn. Above the second camp was a serac barrier that had changed significantly from 2017 and presented a greater cause for concern in terms of overhead hazard and ability to circumnavigate. Luckily, the team found a way around the righthand side of the wall that involved minimal exposure and well-formed WI 4 ice climbing. Following easier terrain, the team found themselves at another large and safe bivouac at 6200 m, situated below the final difficult band of mixed rock and ice climbing.
Climbing above Camp III
At this point, the team hunkered down for a forecasted 36 hours of bad weather that arrived in the mid-afternoon of 3rd August, their third day on the route. On 5th, at 3:00 am, they departed in weather that was still poor, relying on the clearing that was forecasted. An hour above camp, they were forced to wait for the weather to improve before starting up the technical mixed climbing that was above. In order to stay warm and out of the blowing snow they dug a snow cave and sat inside until 9:00 am when the weather finally cleared, and they were able to continue. Three excellent pitches of ice and mixed ground led to a large snow fin that involved five pitches of challenging and unprotectable snow climbing and one pitch of steep but solid serac ice. At sunset, they reached their last bivy site at 6700 m.
Starting at sunrise on 6th August, the team left their tents and launched for the summit. An excellent pitch of alpine ice led to the top of a corniced ridge they started traversing. Two pitches along the ridge, Graham triggered a small slab avalanche, a part of which poured over the belay where the rest of the team was standing. The volume of the slide wasn’t large enough to harm the belay, but it did sweep Graham off his feet and he fell for about 30-40 m down a gulley and over a small cliff. The lead ropes rope caught him and fortunately he was not hurt and climbed back up to rejoin the team. After spending some time to regroup, they decided to continue, but Chris took the lead again given that Graham was shaken by his fall. Three more pitches of challenging snow climbing intermixed with short sections of ice and mixed terrain and steep unconsolidated snow led to a final belay 50 m below the summit. But the nature of the climbing gave the team little confidence in their ability to reach the summit, even though it loomed just overhead.
In the final few feet to the summit Chris gave the lead to Mark who recalls that final pitch. “It was late, and Chris had led all day in a tremendous effort but now he had stalled out in steep, shoulder deep snow just 15 m or so below the summit of Link Sar. Steve yelled up, ‘It’s probably a giant cornice; we may have to call it good!’ Chris wasn’t convinced, instinctively he felt the summit loomed somewhere just above, but he couldn’t figure out how to climb any higher. Graham was dug into a huge hole with his body providing the only belay and spoke to the team, ‘Mark has a lot of experience with these kinds of dangerous mountains. I want him to go up and have a look.’ Chris downclimbed quickly to the belay, we swapped ends and I stripped down to my shell and no pack to be as light and nimble as possible and then climbed to Chris’s highpoint about 12 m up. A single screw, just above the belay, provided the only protection.
“I began digging upwards, two m deep in places, in a big arc, chimneying against the trench walls. I was terribly frightened the snow might collapse under my feet and I would tumble over backwards, hurtling 25 m to that one screw. Fresh on all our minds was the horrifying avalanche that swept Graham for a 30-40 m fall just a few hours before. I feared also that I was indeed climbing up a huge cornice and any moment I could break through and plunge over the other side of the mountain.
Sensing danger at the belay, Steve furiously dug in, searching for a V thread to secure us all. Still I made progress, sweating through my base layers as I inched upwards towards a faint horizon of snow. After what seemed an eternity, the slope began to stiffen, the angle laid back, and I could get to my knees and wriggle upwards. And then it was over! I stood up on perhaps the most amazing summit I have ever reached. It was about three m wide by seven long and perfectly flat, but vertical or overhung on all sides. A massive spike of granite pierced through the snow just a few feet below to confirm we had arrived! I was overcome with emotion, relief to have survived and overjoyed to be finally on the summit of Link Sar. I screamed down, “I’m on the fucking top!” A short pause of disbelief was followed by an eruption of cheers from my companions and “is there room up there for us”. There was plenty and soon we all stood on top of Link Sar and hugged and screamed and marvelled at our spectacular position and the dazzling alpenglow bathing the Karakoram in orange light. I was so happy to reach the summit and for my companions who had worked so long and hard for this mountain. We spent less than an hour on top as it was getting dark, a cold wind had picked up and we had a long way back to our high camp. As I said goodbye to Link Sar in the fading light, I thought how lucky we were, an amazing team of friends on one of the most breathtaking summits in the world!”
Route photo from Matteo
On 8th August, nine days after departing, the team arrived back at ABC. The descent had taken three days due to the challenge of making anchors in the bad snow conditions and the need for the team to once again wait out the heat of the day lower on the mountain.
This first ascent of Link Sar had taken a maximal physical and mental effort from the entire team. It required all their collective experience and strength. Their democratic, discussion-oriented decision-making process was the key element that enabled them to reach the top and safely descend from this elusive and beautiful summit.
Finally, it is important to note that the expedition was undertaken adhering to strict environmental standards, deep respect for the communities local to the Karakoram, and the carbon footprint incurred by the expedition has been calculated and will be offset (with the help of Protect Our Winters).
The team would like to first and foremost thank their families and friends for their support in this endeavour. They would also like to thank their sponsors and those who provided them funding for the expedition that includes: The American Alpine Club, The Mount Everest Foundation, The British Mountaineering Council, and The New Zealand Alpine Club.
And finally, they would like to thank those in Pakistan who helped them make this trip happen, namely Nazir Sabir Expeditions, Alpine Adventure Guides, Captain Umair Tariq and their dear friends and local staff, Hajji Rasool, Nadeem and Fida Ali.
Graham Zimmerman, Steve Swenson, Chris Wright and Mark Richey made the first ascent of Link Sar (7041 m) in the Central Pakistani Karakoram via its 3400 m southeast face. This was an alpine style light weight expedition during July – August, 2019.
Steve Swenson splits his time between Seattle and Canmore with his wife Ann. He has been climbing for over a half century, including ascents of K2 and Everest without supplementary oxygen, and the first ascent of Saser Kangri II with Mark Richey and Freddie Wilkinson in 2011 which won a Piolet d’Or. His book, Karakoram, Climbing through the Kashmir Conflict won the Kekoo Naoroji Book Award for Himalayan Literature in 2019. Steve is an honorary member of The Himalayan Club.
Mark Richey began rock climbing in 1973 at age 15 in the Quincy Quarries of Massachusetts.
He has made over 30 expeditions to the greater ranges of the world with a focus towards technical alpine style ascents and exploratory climbing. Marks expeditions have taken him from remote Fjords in Greenland to desert rock towers in Ethiopia and some of the least visited mountain ranges of Nepal, Peru, Tibet, India and Pakistan.
Mark lives in Massachusetts with his wife Teresa where they own and operate Mark Richey Woodworking, a firm specializing in the design, manufacture and installation of high-end woodworking throughout the country. Mark is an honorary member of The Himalayan Club.
The waiter appeared. “Two eggs fry, please” I asked him. He nodded, and I looked back at Ally. The blood on his face had been cleaned, his head now stitched and bandaged. He logged onto the hotel WiFi and, within seconds, messages began pinging through…
Koyo Zom (6877 m) is a beautiful mountain in the Hindu Raj range in Pakistan. Like a medieval castle in the wilds of Asia, its bulk looks out towards Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Will Sim had ‘re-discovered’ this forgotten, mysterious mountain and invited Ally Swinton, Uisdean Hawthorn, John Crook and myself to join. Through September and October, we’d spend six weeks travelling, acclimatizing and then waiting for a weather window to try a new route in alpine style.
September arrived, and the plan unfolded. We travelled to Pakistan, acclimatized, and then, towards the end of our trip, a window of opportunity appeared—fair weather stretched into the distance. As Will, Uisdean and John were motivated to try the left hand skyline of Koyo Zom, Ally and I looked to the right hand skyline. We packed our bags for seven days on the mountain’s unclimbed west face.
Our new route on the north-west face of Koyo Zom was an amazing, testing experience. After climbing an ice field we bivied at its top on Day 1. We then followed mixed chimneys and corners on Day 2, breathing hard in the cold, dry air. It was like dry tooling with your hands, pulling on frozen-in spikes and flakes of rock. Our crampons bit into the weathered, textured ice.
We stopped on a narrow snow ridge in the golden glow of sunset, our entire view feeling pretty special. Whilst doing the lengthy tasks of melting water for our freeze-dried meals and keeping warm, we anxiously looked at the enormous headwall above, searching for a way through its steepness. Ally had dubbed it ‘the cathedral.’ I thought it looked more like Mt. Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies. I wasn’t sure what was worse! We ducked back into the tent as dusk overtook day.
The Great Game
A narrow ridge at sunset
I woke up several times during the night and gazed at the sky. The stars! You should see the stars! Millions of tiny glowing lights silently spun around our tent. Such sights are rare.
The waiter re-appeared. “Two more eggs fry, please.” He smiled, acknowledging my hunger and sunburnt face.
On Day 3, Ally and I quested into the headwall. Our uncertainty hung in the air as we gingerly shifted on creaking belays. The loose rock we threw over our shoulders fell for hundreds of metres, spinning and tumbling down the the glacier, and we stuffed cams into solid cracks.
Ally’s motivation and strong mentality encouraged me to continue, so I aided and French-freed higher. Weighting a hanging belay at over 6100 m, with the golden afternoon sun washing over the west face, I whooped in delight. I switched to rock shoes and began tip-toeing through the 3D steepness, the climbing so reminiscent of the beloved Gogarth in North Wales. I was able to get hands-off rests when I bridged between hanging fangs of rock, revealing in the exposure. What the hell were we doing, climbing E4 6a moves at over 6000 m?! I sat on a cam every now and again to get my breath back.
On the face
At the final belay of the headwall, my bare hands quickly stuffed into gloves, I reflected on the pure joy of this type of climbing. I hadn’t expected us to make it through the headwall, and we’d been granted a subtle weakness through to the upper part of the mountain. This is alpine climbing at its finest, and the type of adventure I enjoy most—hard and technical. We soaked in the view: peaks cut the horizon, disappearing into Pakistan and Afghanistan. We chopped a small ledge in the snow for a bivy and began to spoon.
On Day 4 we followed easier ground, worn down by the altitude. We now loathed the weight of the double set of cams, set and a half of wires and set of pegs. Scrambling over mixed ground after exiting the headwall, our view of the world expanded and we retracted into ourselves: both physically into every item of clothing, and mentally into our own heads. It wasn’t long before I checked into my ‘altitude pain cave’ as we continued upwards. We crashed in the early afternoon, willing to be near the top.
On Day 5, we embraced the bitter cold on the summit slopes and trudged upwards. Hoping to see the tracks of our friends Will, Uisdean and John, we pushed on, but then figured they must’ve turned back when Ally and I saw nothing. ‘We’ were completely alone, a pair becoming a single thing.
The western side
Sucking in all the air we could manage—and bent double hyperventilating when we couldn’t—we finally got to the 6877 m summit around 1:00 pm on Saturday 28th Sept. It had been one of the best, most enjoyable alpine routes I’ve ever climbed. Our “woohoo!” shouts were lost in the jagged mountains stretching into the distance. White-capped teeth rose from dark brown valleys in all directions: Pakistan, China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
We made a smooth descent down the mountain’s easier eastern side, where the Austrians in ‘68 and Brits in ‘74 had made the only previous ascents of Koyo Zom. This was significantly quicker than abseiling back the way we’d come, up the west face.
Ally and I slumped onto the Pechus glacier, pitching the tent in the evening. We could almost taste the fried pakora made by our base camp cook, Moseen. All we had to do was walk down this glacier, weaving through crevasses for about 6 km and dropping 2300 m in altitude. We now knew our friends Uisdean, Will and John were safely back in BC after bailing from their route.
On the sixth day morning, we woke with the sun, roped up and trudged down, slush sucking at our boots.
What happened next is an unlucky mistake, but essentially Ally fell about 15 or 20 m into a crevasse and sustained several injuries. I did what anyone would do in the ensuing 28 hours and cared for him as I’m sure he would for me. When I pulled him out, he was covered in blood from a head wound. It looked deep, but the single bandage and his hair matted together to help stop the bleeding. I sliced open his trousers to check his leg pain, hoping my fingers wouldn’t meet a sharp bone and soft, wet flesh. Thankfully the leg was only badly bruised.
I tried to think through the adrenaline. We were in a remote region of Pakistan. The only photo I’d seen of our descent made it look like a gnarly, long glacier, which would take all day to travel if we were healthy and lucky. Ally was shivering and bleeding from his head. We were out of gas and food (save for a few bars and nuts). I knew Ally needed more medical attention than our single bandage could provide. After a few minutes of thought, I pressed the SOS button on our Garmin InReach Mini.
I was glad Ally remained conscious throughout the time waiting for a helicopter rescue, but in the first evening he seemed very faint, unresponsive and weak. I admit: for a time, I was genuinely concerned he might die that night.
I will (unfortunately) remember waiting for the Pakistani Army helicopters to reach us. It was quite an experience to spoon Ally, covered in blood, throughout the night. I can still smell the stench. I listened to his breathing, already irregular from the altitude, and when his breath paused for seconds... and seconds... and... I’d give him a nudge, my own breath held waiting for his next inhale.
By noon the next day, Ally had improved and he even tried to hobble a few metres. As he returned to the tent, I heard the distinct “chop-chop-chop” of helicopter rotors. What a beautiful sound!
“Two more eggs fry, please.” The waiter’s eyes widened. “And some porridge!” We ate and ate and ate when we surreally returned to civilization.
Ally was stitched up and checked over in a hospital in Gilgit-Baltistan. We made contact with Will, Uisdean and John, who were safely back in base camp. Somehow the press were all over the story, with totally inaccurate reports and sensationalized stories. Now that I know first-hand how false the news stories were, it makes me wonder what’s actually correctly reported in our media?
This leaves me in a dilemma. I count alpinism as one of the coolest, hardest, most unforgiving—yet rewarding—types of climbing. I hold myself to high standards and ethics. I want to climb high and free. I have echoed others’ comments in the past about these standards: ‘if you get frostbite on a route, you lose. If you get rescued on a route, you lose.’
And yet I want to remember the route Ally and I climbed, one of the best I’ve ever done, and up until the rescue, one of the highest highs. It felt so cool to be on the summit, as if we were on the Moon. But I have to hold my word and say we got rescued. We ultimately ‘lost’ by those terms. But as friends have said, winning and losing don’t really apply to alpine climbing, and I’m glad we had an incredible time on our new route; there’s just an asterisk at the end. Accidents just happen in the mountains—sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes not. The main thing is that we’re both safe and well, and we had an amazing adventure. Nothing else really matters.
At some point in the night I asked Ally what he wanted to call the route. He suggested ‘The Great Game.’ This is the name of an amazing book about the history of Central Asia, and its power struggles for hundreds of years. It also seems a fitting name for our route. I don’t know about grades, but I’d stab at ED+ 1500 m for now.
On our return to civilization, we sit in an empty, high-ceilinged hotel restaurant. The space and quiet is comforting. The waiter returns and I lean back, empty plates stacked high after the first proper breakfast in many, many days. I can feel my body relax after so much tension. For now, I feel very content.
Thanks for an amazing trip, lads! It sure was a blast.
Thanks also to Jon Griffith, Ruth Bevan, the Pakistani Army, the Fearless Five pilots, Garmin InReach, the UK Foreign Office, the UK Rapid Response Unit, GEOS IERCC, the British embassies in both Islamabad and Karachi, Global Rescue, and our in-country agent (Jasmine Tours) and team (Imran, Mohsin, Nabeem and Eshaan).
This trip was supported by: The Alpine Club’s Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund, the Austrian Alpine Club, the BMC, Firepot Food and Trail Butter.
Koyo Zom (6877 m) is a mountain in the Hindu Raj range in Pakistan. Will Sim, Tom Livingstone, Ally Swinton, Uisdean Hawthorn and John Crook tried two new routes up the mountain in September 2019. As Will, Uisdean and John were motivated to try the left hand skyline of Koyo Zom, Ally and Tom looked to the right hand skyline. They made the first ascent along the unclimbed west face and called the route ‘The Great Game’.
All photos courtesy Ally Swinton/Tom Livingstone
Tom Livingstone is a 29-year-old climber and writer, based in North Wales, UK. He has a penchant for trad, winter and alpine climbing—the bigger and harder, the better.
Tom is also an acclaimed outdoor writer and outdoor instructor, holding the Mountain Leader and Single Pitch Award. In 2019, Tom was awarded the Piolet d’Or for his ascent of Latok I with Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar.
On 7th August we climbed up the steep scree slope and got our first view of the glacier….what an awesome view it was! The river of ice curved up to culminate at the base of a small peak of 6000 m and was flanked by a steep wall in the north created by two peaks and by a ridge line on the south overlooking the Rongdo valley.
“Why would the cattle go through so much trouble, just for some grass?!” exclaimed Abhijit.
After ascending 900 m and then descending 400 m, over steep scree slopes and rocky slabs, precariously hanging a few hundred metres over a fast-flowing stream, he could not fathom why the villagers sent their cattle to graze in the Satti valley. It was Abhijit’s first visit to the eastern Karakoram, and he was getting introduced to a typical trek to base camp in the region.
Our team from The Himalayan Club, consisting of Rajesh Gadgil, Abhijit Dandekar, Atin Sathe and I, was exploring a section of the Satti valley in the East Karakoram. We were supported by Pemba Norbu, Pasang Bhote, Sangbu Sherpa, Phuphu Dorje, Pasang Sherpa and a team of low altitude porters from Nepal.
We had visited the valley in 2005, during the Indian American joint expedition – ‘Maitri’ and had explored the glaciers and peaks on the north-eastern end. We were now exploring the ‘Lung Tung nala’ in the south-western section of valley.
We left Mumbai on 13th July and were in Manali by late evening. On 16th we reached Leh. The team along with Vineeta Muni, Daanika Sawhniey and Nishant Parikh did an acclimatization trek in the Digar valley near Leh. Unfortunately, there had been heavy snowfall early in the season and the ‘Digar la’ was snowbound. We trekked from Saboo chu to the base of the pass. Since the horses could not cross the pass with our loads, some of the team made a day trip to the pass. We were back in Leh and now set off for our expedition.
We drove across the Khardung la and were at Satti village on 26th July, 2019. From the village at 3300 m, a steep and winding path climbed the right embankment of the river flowing from the Satti valley. A 900 m climb brought us to a high point at 4250 m from which we were required to diagonally traverse down 350 m to the intermediary camp next to the river at 3900 m. The route descended steeply over loose scree and rock. At several points one was required to traverse and downclimb rock slabs overhanging the river below. There was no room for error. It was nerve wracking, even with light loads on our backs. Shifting loads on such precarious terrain was a logistical nightmare. All the loads were shifted from Satti village with the help of a team of 15 support staff. It rained for a few days. The route was prone to rock fall if it rained, so with even the slightest showers we had to stay put. As a result, we could shift a majority of the loads and move to the intermediary camp only on 29th July.
The next major obstacle was the river itself. About three kms from our intermediary camp, we were at the junction of the main river with Standok nala. It was possible to cross the river only in the early morning when its water level was at its minimum. Even then, the force of the water was so strong that we fixed a safety line across. We decided to shift all loads from the intermediary camp to the river crossing point on the next day and shift the loads across the river in one go on the following morning. This would avoid repeated exposure to the river crossing for the team.
Summit Ridge of Tashispa Ri
It took us two days to complete the process before we could shift to base camp. After the river crossing, the route climbed up a steep moraine embankment for two hundred metres. The valley opened up to beautiful grazing grounds dotted with yaks and cows at Yarlas. Another three hours and we reached the junction of the Spang Chenmo nala with the Lung Tung nala where we located and occupied our base camp at 4823 m on 1st August. The weather kept playing truant. We were confined to our tents the next day. On 3rd August, we managed an evening walk up the valley to check the route ahead. It looked promising. Next day, we established ABC. The route rose gradually along the right bank of Lung Tung nala with a few patches of steep scree. ABC was located at 5300 m on the terminal moraine of the Lung Tung glacier. After a day of load ferry, we shifted to ABC on 6th August.
The Satti Lungpa. The river drains an area of more than 60 sq kms of valleys and glaciers
The entire Satti Lungpa gets channelled into this narrow chasm.
The exposure and drop below the path that leads to the Satti Lungpa
From ABC we could not see the route towards the next camp since we were overshadowed by the glacier, dropping steeply from the eastern skyline to about 100 m from the campsite. On 7th August we climbed up the steep scree slope and got our first view of the glacier….what an awesome view it was! The river of ice curved up to culminate at the base of a small peak of 6000 m and was flanked by a steep wall in the north created by two peaks and by a ridge line on the south overlooking the Rongdo valley.
As we looked up the glacier, on our left were peaks 6489 m, 6277 m connected by a continuous ridge line and culminating in peak 6104 m. On our right were peaks 6170 m, 6160 m, and 6190 m. that continued in a ridge line to culminate at peak 6104 m. This is a climber’s paradise with so many unclimbed peaks within reach offering routes of varying difficulties. I felt like a child on his birthday with many gifts to be opened. We were back in camp discussing for hours which peaks to attempt and routes to climb.
Peaks Karpo Kangri (in centre) and Buk Buk (dome shaped peak on right) which our team climbed in 2005
On 8th August, we carried loads to establish the high camp. We climbed to 5750 m along the glacier and looked for a suitable campsite. Not happy with the location, we dumped our loads and returned. Next day we moved up with additional loads and a campsite was located at 5900 m, a little further from our dump. It was a wonderful location, safe from any rockfall or avalanche risk, with views of the peaks in the Rongdo valley and a good water source.
The Lung Tung glacier from the summit of Tashispa Ri. In the background are peaks (l to r) 6190, 6160 and 6170
Tashispa Ri (6104 m) was climbed from the left skyline ridge
That day, Abhijit moved down from ABC to base camp since he needed to return to Mumbai. The weather closed in again and we were tent-bound for a day.
On 11th, we shifted to the high camp with our eyes glued on possible climbing routes to the peaks around us. The feeling was awesome to be amidst so many unclimbed peaks and routes to explore.
We decided to attempt peak 6104 m at the extreme end of the Lung Tung glacier to start with. It would help us acclimatize before we attempted the more difficult objectives around us. On 12th August, the entire team of Sherpas and three members started from the high camp by 7:00 am. We walked up the glacier for about 500 m to reach the base of the peak. An easy climb of 150 m on the northen ridge led us to the summit at 6104 m by 11:00 am. Despite cloudy weather, we could get views of the nearby peaks and glaciers in the Rongdo valley and the southern end of the Eastern Karakoram range. We were back in camp, hoping to attempt the adjoining peak in the next two days.
As we rested the next day and prepared for our next climb, the weather closed in again, with snowfall for most of that day and the next. Things looked uncertain—I decided to head back to Mumbai due to a personal commitment. Rajesh and Atin decided to wait it out and attempt the peak.
However, the weather took a turn for the worse. As I crossed Khardung la on 16th August, on my way back to Leh, dark grey clouds covered the entire Eastern Karakoram and Ladakh. I felt a shiver and prayed for the safety of the team who were still at high camp, waiting out the weather.
Rajesh, Atin and the support team faced heavy snowfall and prudently decided to abandon the expedition. With great difficulty, they retreated to base camp on 17th August. The route below base camp was now fraught with risk of rock fall. Fortunately, they got breaks in the weather for a few hours to enable them to shift loads. It took them another five days to wind up the expedition and return to Leh on 22nd August.
We were lucky to be able to climb peak 6104 m on one of the few good weather days that we enjoyed during the trip. We therefore decided to name the peak ‘Tashispa Ri’ meaning ‘Good Fortune’.
Continuing exploration in the Eastern Karakoram, Divyesh Muni and his team ventured into the Satti valley to explore a section of it. Rajesh Gadgil, Atin Sathe, Divyesh Muni, Pemba Norbu, Pasang Bhote, Sangbu Sherpa, Phuphu Dorje and Pasang Sherpa made the first ascent of Tashispa Ri (6104 m) on 12th August 2019.
Divyesh Muni is a Chartered Accountant and one of India’s finest climbers by passion. In almost 40 years of active climbing, he has climbed 36 Himalayan peaks, 22 of them being first ascents or new routes. 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 recent years, he has concentrated on exploratory expeditions in the East Karakoram region.
Rajsekhar Maity and Upal Chakrabarti
To maximize chances of success, we took a critical decision. Two of our members would go down, despite being fit. This would make the team smaller and swifter, reduce the risks of climbing unprotected and in general, make management of all unanticipated difficulties easier.
Sometime in June 2010, as we lay on our backs on the rolling meadows of the base camp of Mt. Changuch, tired and disappointed from our failed attempt on the peak, our gaze stretched out to the most prominent line on the horizon ahead—the colossal south ridge of Nanda Devi East (Sunanda Devi). It went on, dotted with rock spires, cornices and sharp elevations to a summit which seemed the end of the world. Our minds stayed with the ridge, as we packed our bags and left the base camp.
Fast forward to 2019, August third week. A late monsoon across the country wreaked havoc in the foothills of Uttaranchal. The Sub Divisional Magistrate at Munsiyari was stuck at Dharchula due to landslides and road closures. We waited anxiously for him, impatient to start our journey to climb Nanda Devi East.
Ours was a small team from South Calcutta Trekkers Association (SCTA), a Kolkata based mountaineering club. We were not professionally committed to mountaineering, but had managed to gather enough exposure, knowledge, skill and passion to think of touching Nanda Devi East.
But it took nine years to believe that we could dream of a peak where some of the best had failed. We started research on Nanda Devi East right on returning from Changuch. We realized that the peak demanded a combination of various technical skills, extreme tenacity at high altitude, and a robust calculation of risk. Further, we discovered that a peculiar, unpredictable weather system produced conditions on the south ridge which not only raised the bar of climbing, but also generated a significantly high fatality rate on the mountain. We realized we had to test ourselves on similar ground several times before attempting this mountain.
The south ridge till the summit of Nanda Devi East, from the 3rd pinnacle
The first of the three rock pinnacles
Our studies on the climbing history of Nanda Devi East taught us that apart from a few instances, like Roger Payne and Julie Ann-Clyma’s astounding alpine ascent of the peak in 1994, it has been mostly climbed using traditional tactics. However, despite the preponderance of traditional methods of climbing, the peak witnessed a significant number of failures and deaths. The safety and gradualism associated with traditional methods seemed to be not enough to protect oneself from the perils of the peak. As we immersed ourselves in the stories of past expeditions, we figured out that the south ridge witnessed too many accidents, and most of these were caused by the deadly exposure of the ridge. A slightest mistake, especially in conditions of bad weather, made the exposure unmanageable.
The mountain was overwhelming—we needed a team suitable to step on it. Phurba Sherpa one of our oldest climbing partners, was also one of the best climbers we had seen in the Himalaya. He had climbed with the SCTA continuously since 2007 accompanying us on Shivling, Thalaysagar, Changuch, Reo Purgyil among others. It was natural that we needed him on Nanda Devi East. But it was not only our need that drew Phurba. As a climber, he seemed to be enthralled by this mountain himself. Phurba loved technical climbing. In his long career, he had opened routes for a number of difficult peaks, making many first ascents possible. He earned his bread on Everest, but sharpened his skill and followed his heart on these technically challenging peaks.
Rajsekhar, Upal, Asish and Pradip were old climbing mates – we had spent many years in this Himalayan playground. But this would be the most difficult climbing challenge of our lives—we hoped that we were ready.
The summer of 2019 was long, and the monsoon came late. Martin Moran was one of our inspirations. In fact, it was Moran’s first ascent of Changuch that took us to the peak the very next year. In 2009, Moran had climbed Changuch after a failed attempt at Nanda Devi East. But his affair with this peak continued. He came back in 2015 attempting an incredibly difficult route on the north-east ridge of the mountain. He gained considerable ground, but had to retreat on the face of exceptionally difficult circumstances. But the mountain, seemed to weave a spell on people who were committed to it. Nanda Devi Unsoeld’s death on the main peak of Nanda Devi in 1978 was perhaps the most iconic instance of this.
Climber on the connecting ridge between top of the 1st pinnacle and the 2nd
The news of Moran’s death, along with eight other climbers, on an unnamed peak adjacent to Nanda Devi East, reached us in May 2019. We were devastated. We knew that he was planning to try Nanda Devi East again, and we were waiting anxiously to hear from his expedition. Close on his heels, there was another expedition to the peak. A Polish team, commemorating the 80th anniversary of the first climb of the mountain by the Poles, was somewhere around base camp when massive efforts were launched by Indian defence forces to identify the spot where Moran and his team were swept away by an avalanche. Suddenly the base camp had turned into a scene of complex activity. Rescue efforts and climbing strategies took place side by side, as we received fragmentary information on both, sitting in Kolkata.
The next few months were spent in a haze of final preparations, uncertainties, and growing excitement. Whether there would be administrative restrictions on an expedition to Nanda Devi East in the aftermath of this accident was uncertain. In the meanwhile, we met the Polish climbers in New Delhi, who had successfully climbed Nanda Devi East in June and got critical information and photographs about the last phase of the climb. Jaroslaw Gawrysiak and Wojtek Flaczynski, the two polish summiteers, observed that the level of difficulty is that of some of the most difficult eight thousanders. This coming from those who had been to Everest, Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak, and were preparing for a winter ascent of K2, alerted us, as we revisited our plans and strategies.
The first day’s walk on the way to the base camp of Nanda Devi East, up to the village of Lilam, used to be a leisurely one, as our Changuch memories suggested. But the old trail has been washed away by the 2016 disaster and the new one involved a long push uphill on the very first day. We felt this in our thighs and knees, as we trudged into Babaldhar around 4:00 pm. The rest of the journey to Bidalgwar, the base camp, was more or less uneventful. The weather was predictably bad, with rains slowing progress. It took seven days to reach base camp—26th August, 2019.
A Maze of Problems
The breathtaking beauty of the base camp quickly eased the fatigue of the trek. Lush green meadows, a delightful stream nearby, thousands of sheep grazing on the adjacent slopes, and the majestic views of Nanda Devi East, Nandakot, and Kuchela Dhura provided the perfect setting to start the planning the first big phase.
In our minds, we had divided the climb into phases, based on the difficulties and strategies suitable to them. The first, and quite significant hurdle above the base camp (4300 m) was to reach the Longstaff’s Col (5910 m) with members and supplies. We started moving towards this objective by gradually shifting loads to an advanced base camp. Walking along the western end of the Bidalgwar valley, we crossed over a narrow glacier coming down from the Traill’s Pass and gained the true right lateral moraine of the Nandaghunti glacier originating from the eastern face of Nanda Devi East. A moderately steep ascent through a grassy slope brought us at a small flat ground at an altitude of 4900 m, just below the face which went up to Longstaff’s Col. Here we set up advanced base camp. The walk took us around five hours. All members, Phurba and his Sherpa team of four, along with Devender and Narender—who acted as high altitude porters and cooks for the team—ferried loads between BC base and ABC over the next four days.
A traverse on the rock buttress
While the supplies were easily taken to ABC, it was difficult to decide the appropriate time for the team to shift there. For the entire period of the load ferries, the mornings were cloudy and the day saw intermittent drizzles. Clouds covered Nanda Devi East, and the entire climbing route on Longstaff’s Col remained invisible. Expecting such weather, we had got enough food to last us for two months. Finally, on 3rd September, noting a marginal improvement, the team shifted to ABC. As ropes were fixed above ABC, till Longstaff’s Col, we faced a situation we had anticipated. The climb to Longstaff’s Col (5910 m) was too long to cover in a single day. Moreover, in conditions of bad weather, incessant rock fall and little deposition of snow, the team’s progress would slow down. Finding a spot for a camp in between ABC and Longstaff’s Col was necessary. Further, we expected to spend at least 9-10 nights above 6000 m. This is an exceptional feature of this climb. Even on eight thousand metre peaks, climbers do not often need to spend such a long period over 6000 m. Thus we had to be well acclimatized and factor in the possibility of bad weather.
We found a spot at 5272 m. The Sherpas and HAPs ferried loads till Longstaff’s Col and set up camp on the col after which we, along with two Sherpas moved to the camp on 6th September. The weather, however, played foul for the entire period. We realized that the weather was gradually getting on our nerves. We had already spent three weeks since we left Kolkata, and had not even been able to negotiate the very first challenge of the mountain—of setting up Camp 1 on Longstaff’s Col.
Touching the Col
Some foresight paid off at this point. We did have a master-plan of tackling the peculiarities of weather. We had planned the climb in the post-monsoon period, as we thought that the rock climbing on the entire length of the ridge would be easier to tackle if the rocks were exposed and not covered by the monsoon snow, which later proved to be wrong.
Mixed section on the upper part of the south ridge, in between camp 3 and 4
On studying the rainfall data around Nanda Devi East over the last five years, we realized that monsoon is gradually getting delayed in the region, with a decreasing trend of rainfall in May, and an increasing trend in August and September. The total rain received in the region was also increasing every year. Further, we realized that Nanda Devi East has a peculiar weather regime owing to the geographical location of the peak. The south ridge of Nanda Devi East produces a wind-shear (a variation in wind velocity occurring along a direction at right angles to the wind’s direction and tending to exert a turning force). It is the meeting ground of two different kinds of weather-zones—warm and moist winds coming from the Lawan valley and dry and cold winds coming from the Tibetan plateau—which generates an unpredictable and turbulent wind-condition on the ridge. This condition, mostly unexplained, had been reported by a number of expeditions from the past.
Owing to these two conditions—delayed monsoon and unpredictable weather—we knew that it was likely that there would be long spells of bad weather in September. This meant that without having access to a weather forecast we would not be able to anticipate any short window of clear weather which we might have to swiftly utilize. We also knew that precise weather forecasts for specific peaks are not available in the public domain in India. So we put together a variety of weather databases—national and international—to develop a weather forecasting mechanism in Kolkata. Luckily BSNL had recently launched a satellite phone which can be purchased by ordinary citizens so after some communication with the authorities, we could procure a phone.
The situation was tense at the advanced base camp. The weather showed no signs of improvement. We were talking with Sumit Day, a veteran climber who had a remarkable knowledge of weather systems, and was designing customized weather forecasts for us. Sumit assured us that although the weather would not significantly improve, above the Longstaff’s Col, we would get better weather.
Amidst a white out we climbed about 100 m on the slope towards the col, covered with debris and loose rock, to get access to the rope fixed on the steeper and snow-covered section of the slope. After two full length of fixed polypropylene rope (220 m each) we traversed right to hit a narrow ledge on the rocky ridge that could accommodate two small tents. Norbu and Palchen Sherpa stayed with us at intermediary camp. Another spell of severely bad weather with wet snowfall and heavy fog forced us to spend one more day at here, while Phurba, at Longstaff’s Col tried to open route on the pinnacles but retreated soon because of diminished visibility.
8th September came with slightly better conditions: snowfall stopped but the white-out persisted. We followed the gully towards the Col on the fixed rope and crossed a vertical rock pitch of 20 ft. The terrain till then was a slope of about 35° to 45° made of loose rocks and debris, which became steeper, up to 50° to 60°, beyond the rock barrier. We followed a rib to avoid the continuously falling rocks through the gullies at both the sides. Through constant white-out we reached the Longstaff’s Col in nine hours.
Next morning, to our delight, the skies cleared up. However, later the eastern side (Lawan valley) got covered with a thick layer of valley clouds while the western side (inner sanctuary of Nanda Devi) remained clear for the entire day. The col had a mesmerizing view. We could see long ranges of mountains surrounding the col on the southern ridge of Nanda Devi East. Towards east we could identify peaks like Bamba Dhura (6334 m), Chiring We (6559 m), Suli Top (6300 m), Burphu Dhura (6144 m), Sui Tilla East (6373 m), Chaudhara (6510 m), Rajrambha (6539 m) and even the Tibetan giant Gurla Mandhata (7694 m) faintly, at a distance. Towards the south-east we saw Kuchela Dhura (6294 m), Nanda Kot (6861 m) and Changuch (6322 m). Southwards the southern ridge of Nanda Devi East continued till Nandakhat which was hidden from sight. Looking towards south-west and west we saw a series of famous peaks like Panwalidwar (6663 m), Devtoli (6788 m), Mrigthuni (6855 m), Devimukut (6648 m), Trishul-1 (7120 m), Devisthan I and II (6678 m/ 6529 m), Bethartoli North (6352 m). Even the Jaonli group and the Kedarnath massif could be seen far away. Finally, in the north-west, stood the colossal Nanda Devi Main (7816 m).
A Broken Line
The way ahead from C1 (the col) to C3 presented the second major phase of the climb. Until C3, was mostly rock which was brittle and flaky, and presented itself in the form of hair-line ledges, towers, spires, buttresses, overhangs and tricky traverses. This came with exposure to drops of over three thousand feet on either side of the ridge, which frequently narrowed down to become a single file of loose stones. This phase demanded skill, balancing capacities and most importantly, nerves.
Four members and five Sherpas started from C1 and climbed through the eastern flank of the first rock pinnacle to its top, from where a narrow ridge went to the top of the second pinnacle. Static ropes were fixed on the pinnacles but due to brittle rock and loose rubble, anchors were too unstable. Thus, jumars were useless—one had to effectively climb on one’s own without any pressure on the rope. On the way we saw old anchors and ropes fixed on the pinnacles and the ridge. Old pitons and snow bars were replaced with new pitons. We rappelled down from the second pinnacle and traversed the eastern face of an exposed ridge to reach the base of the third pinnacle. Another 40 feet of vertical climb brought us to the top of the third pinnacle where we set up C2 in a small space between two rock protrusions at 6000 m. Camp 1 to 2 had taken 2.5 hours.
Heavily corniced snow arete towards the snow neve, enroute to camp 4
On 11th September we left C2 and following a serrated section of the ridge reaching the base of a rock buttress, in less than an hour. The route on the buttress was direct, and was followed by a short pitch of corniced snow ridge till another vertical rock section, which was negotiated by a precarious traverse. Thus we gained the upper part of the south ridge. A progress through an exposed and corniced snow arête for another hour brought us at the base of a 30 foot high rock wall, the upper portion of which formed an overhang. There were quite a few old ropes already fixed. Phurba grabbed three of those to climb to the top and then fixed a new static rope. We first hauled our loads to the top and then climbed the overhang. We found a narrow platform hidden by a small cornice and hanging over the east face of the mountain, suitable for pitching three tents. In around four hours after leaving the previous camp, we set up our C3 on that platform at an altitude of 6140 m.
Here we encountered the toughest situation of the expedition. We realized that we might run out of ropes. Although the climb from Longstaff’s Col to this camp was challenging, it did not involve much height gain. This meant that more than 1300 m of risky climbing in the last phase of the expedition had become uncertain due to this shortfall. It was clear; we would not have the security of fixed ropes in the most demanding final phase of the climb, beyond C4.
The weather, we were informed, would remain clear for the next few days. To maximize chances of success, we took a critical decision. Two of our members would go down, despite being fit. This would make the team smaller and swifter, reduce the risks of climbing unprotected and in general, make management of all unanticipated difficulties easier. Also, two strong members at lower camps would assure a robust backup in case anything went wrong with the summit team. The rest day at C3 was spent taking tough decisions merrily, with songs and laughter. The team was at its best. On 13th September Asish and Upal went down to ABC, while Rajsekhar and Pradip, with Phurba and four Sherpas pushed ahead towards C4.
From C3, the ridge transformed into a heavily corniced snow arete interspersed with rock steps, merging into a wide windswept snow neve, part of the huge ice-field between the two peaks of Nanda Devi. The snow arete that we followed sloped down west, straight to the inner sanctuary at angles ranging from 60° to 70°, while the other side ended at the huge cornices hanging over the vertical east face. In fair weather and in about five hours we reached near the end of the snow neve, below the summit pyramid of Nanda Devi East. Cutting a platform on a 45° slope we put up C4 at 6514 m.
The neve became steeper, extending to the summit pyramid of the East peak. The traditional summit route goes through three rock bands across the summit pyramid. Though many of the earlier attempts started the summit push from the location of our C4 and few of them got success too, considering the length of the route we decided to place one more camp before the summit. (The Polish team in June took 21 hours for their summit push from a location even higher than our C4).
To keep the retreat line intact, we decided not to retrieve any rope from lower sections of the ridge. Instead we cut up the last coil of rope of 200 m, and continued climbing ahead. Roped up we crossed the last section of the snow field, to gain access to the first rock band and the longest of the three, at the beginning of the summit pyramid. We climbed directly up the face, following mostly the snow gullies between the rock steps. On the snow gullies we used the running belay method, but on steeper rock steps fixed ropes and then retrieved them after all members crossed the pitch, in order to reuse them in the next section. The gradient became steeper, up to 80° at places.
Meanwhile the main peak of Nanda Devi was becoming visible at a different angle. In about 4.5 hours we were able to cross the 1st rock band and reached a spot at 6900 m, below a prominent rock boulder. Cutting a platform on a 60° slope we erected two small tents for seven of us. The higher elevation and fair weather opened up more peaks which had been invisible so far. Among them was Panchchuli II and Api in the east. In the west Trishul II popped up adjacent to the main peak, along with Bethartoli south and the tip of Nandaghunti. We decided to continue with the same rope strategy for the summit push. But as it was becoming a painstakingly slow process—that of fixing and re-fixing rope. That night at C5 Rajsekhar decided to make the team even smaller by sending only Pradip with four Sherpas, to increase the probability of a successful climb.
Climbing up towards the final summit block
Living the Dream
On the full moon night of 14th September the temperature went down to -25°C accompanied by strong winds of approximately 35 km/h, when Pradip Bar, Phurba Sherpa, Lopsang Sherpa, Dawa Chongwa and Palchen Sherpa stepped out of the tent at 1:30 am for the final summit push. They took the ridge at the eastern end of the summit pyramid, and climbing along that narrow and corniced ridge they reached the foot of the second rock band—a 80-85° mixed pitch of rock and snow gullies, the most risky section of the entire south ridge. The rock steps were covered with verglas and powdery snow and hard to get a grip on. After sunrise the wind got fiercer at about 40-45 km/h. The team thought of turning back due to these freezing conditions, but ultimately decided to continue to push further.
Beyond the second rock band they followed an exposed ridge with cornices on both sides. The third and the final rock band was covered with hard ice, but felt relatively easier than the earlier ones. On negotiating this band the team faced a small rock wall. Traversing around that wall through a snow gully they found a small cornice barring their way. They broke apart the cornice and put the first step on the vast summit field at 10:36 am. It took nine hours for the team to reach the summit. The team mostly used snow stakes as anchors on the route, and a few pitons on the rock bands.
The summit field was a huge flat ground, slightly higher at its corniced north-western end. Nanda Devi was most prominently visible in the west. There was a strong gust of wind and valleys below were completely covered with layers of cloud, but the sky was clear. And so were the tips of the high peaks around. For the first time the peaks in the north came into view – Tirshuli Main (7074 m) and West (7035 m), Hardeol (7151 m), Rishi Pahar (6992 m). The Garmin GPS device showed a reading of 7431 m. The team stood for nearly an hour on the top, descending to C5 in 3.5 hours.
A decade’s dream had finally become a reality. On 18th September, while leaving the base camp for Munsiyari, we offered thanks – filled with love, respect, and inspiration. There were many stones at the base camp with names of people who had not returned from the mountain. We added another—for Martin Moran.
You will never know, or perhaps you will now know
how many of us were inspired by you.
This is your place. Be here forever.
Keep wandering and inspiring.
Rajsekhar Maity led a team of Upal Chakrabarti, Asish and Pradip Bar along with Sherpas Phurba, Lopsang, Dawa Chongwa and Palchen to make the first civilian Indian ascent of Nanda Devi East in the post monsoon season of 2019.
Rajsekhar Maity is a data scientist. He manages one or two mountaineering expeditions along with treks, short hikes and rock climbs, spread across different seasons each year. His successful climbs include Shivling, Thalaysagar, Reo Purgyil, Sudarshan and Saife, and he has attempted several others. Major treks in the Himalayas include Auden’s Col and Ronti Saddle.
Upal Chakrabarti member and deputy leader of Nanda Devi East Expedition 2019, teaches Sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata. He has been going to the Himalayas since his teenage years. A passionate rock climber Upal loves high-altitude technical climbing and has climbed on Shivling, Thalaysagar, Changuch and Nanda Devi East.
Most of the pitches were physically exhausting, with the added psychological uncertainty of the unconsolidated snow and sparse runners.
British mountaineers extensively visited North Sikkim in the early years of the twentieth century but since 1972, it has been a bit neglected. Several summits near or on the Sikkim-Tibet border were climbed by Alexander Kellas between 1907 and 1920, Kellas himself dying during the 1921 Everest expedition which had the Teesta river valley, passing through Lachen and Tangu, as one of its approach routes. In 1910 Kellas climbed Pauhunri (7125 m), Chomoyumo (6829 m) and Sentinel Peak (6490 m) passing to the north of those peaks via Gurudongma valley. Nestled between these great peaks was the overlooked Chombu (6360 m) later to be described as the Matterhorn of Sikkim.
Brief History of Attempts on Chombu
Having had difficult snow conditions in the pre monsoon season, we reasoned that it could not be as bad post monsoon. We were only partly wrong in this assessment. Below 5000 m there was less snow, enabling us to walk on relatively dry ground where we had been wading in the spring season. Once above 5500 m we found that all north facing snow was unconsolidated, deep and unstable, while south facing slopes tended to have a good re-freeze after cold nights.
The weather was consistently poor during most of our time in the field, with rain or snow through much of the day, usually in the afternoons. The winds were low and the temperatures warm. This suggested the tail end of the monsoon had not quite left Sikkim. The change came during the six days (11th to 17th October) while were attempting the climb. This was a very welcome coincidence. During this period the temperature dropped significantly, and on the final day while walking out, it snowed heavily. This suggested that the monsoon-like conditions had come to an end on 11th October while the first winter snows arrived a week later, leaving a short weather window of about a week.
Fowler descending the north east ridge on day 5
Fowler descending the north east ridge on day 5
In conclusion, it is not clear that there is a best season to climb this particular mountain and perhaps the best summary of Sikkim weather was summed up in the question posed by Julie-Anne Clyma in replying to us. “Just how much uncertainty can you take?”
After establishing a base at 4600 m below the terminal moraine of the west Chombu glacier, the team explored approaches to the west face of Chombu. The west face is attractive, crisscrossed by apparently climbable ramp lines that seemed to link up and form a complicated but climbable route through the some very steep ground. We climbed up to a point close to the start of the route and were disappointed to find that in bad weather the face had several zones which avalanched in bad weather all day and in good weather avalanched from mid-morning. This meant gaining zones of safety was paramount in and in a spell of bad weather retreat could be problematic.
We had decided to acclimatize at 5500 m on the col between Chombu and Chungukang (5824 m). From there we were able to examine the line of the 1992 Japanese attempt. Above the Chombu-Chungukang col there was a rocky barrier barring the way to ice slopes which culminated at the south end of the Chombu summit ridge. This was followed by two large gendarmes which we estimated would extremely time consuming. We decided that this line was not for us.
So, by now we had ruled out the east face of Chombu as not being accessible from our base camp. The south west line (1992 attempt) looked too long for us. The west face (our original ambition) too dangerous. This left just the north face by a line we had identified as a northeast spur. The north face looked accessible from the north face glacier which flowed to the Sebu chu on the Lanchung valley side (east side) of Chombu. The only question now was whether we could reach this glacier from the west (Tangu valley) side. A short exploration on 8th October in the usual bad weather showed that there was a good track on grassy moraines leading towards the Sebu la that could be used to access boulder fields and a 400 m couloir leading to the watershed ridge between the Lasha chu valley (west or Tangu side) and Sebu chu valley (east side). What we could not know was if the couloir, which we now dubbed the ‘Fowler Couloir’, would lead to any kind of the access to the north Chombu glacier. On climbing the couloir, would we be stranded on a difficult ridge and faced with a problematic descent to glacier hidden from view?
On 11th October, making a predawn start, we trekked up the moraines and boulder fields leading to the Fowler couloir. We had run out of exploration time and this would be our one chance to get to grips with the mountain. We were in luck, at the top of the couloir we stepped off the watershed ridge and on to the north glacier. The following day was foggy in the morning, and not wanting to wander through unknown crevassed ground we waited till the sun burned off the cloud enabling us to see and follow a good route through the long wide crevasses that guard the base of the north face. The snow became deeper as we approached the north face. We knew this would happen as the face shaded this part of the glacier from the sun, stopping the melt-freeze cycle necessary for a firm surface to walk on.
Dawn at c. 6100 m looking east towards the Bhutan Frontier
Day 3 began the task of climbing. This started with climbing up bottomless snow flutings with no possibility of ice screws or other protection till we were in reach of the north east spur. After that the climbing continued with deep cold unconsolidated snow on rocks. Looking up it looked like pure snow climbing, after the leader had cleaned the pitch to reveal the bluffs and outcrops in search of the elusive runners (we carried nuts and pegs but no cams; a minor mistake) it looked quite different. While trying to turn snow covered rock slabs Saunders took a fall of about 20 m. Fowler was persuaded to lead the next few pitches while Saunders recovered his composure. The bivouac was on a fine narrow ridge, belayed to a large boulder and tied in through the tent. We noticed that with the change in weather, the temperatures had also dropped, and it was now very cold at night.
Day 4 was a short demanding day. This was the crux of the route passing though steep snow-covered buttresses before breaking out onto a relatively low angle shoulder leading to the north summit of Chombu. Most of the pitches were physically exhausting, with the added psychological uncertainty of the unconsolidated snow and sparse runners. By the time we reached the shoulder we were at 6107 m, barely 250 m of moderate climbing below the summit, though in the snow conditions we were experiencing, and the horizontal distance involved, we estimated that should take us another day and a half. During the night we shared a package of dried food; ‘Beef Stroganoff with Noodles’. It tasted strange, a bit like oxidised linseed oil, but we knew we would need the energy for the next day. This was a mistake. A bad mistake. By the morning we had been so sick overnight there was no option but to descend. We were not able to eat again for two days.
Fowler high on Chombu, Kangchengyao (6889 m), the central peak of the Donkya Massif behind
Days 5 and 6 were spent reversing our route of ascent. During the rappels we were reminded how serious the climbing on the snow-covered buttresses had been. The wonderful Subhash, our sirdar saw us descending and helped us with our loads for the walk down the moraines to base. There was now not enough time to recover and try again. It was the end of our expedition. We left base for Tangu four days later trekking out in heavy snow. It looked like winter had begun.
Our In-Country Arrangements were handled by Barap Namgyal Bhutia of Sikkim Tour Trek and Expedition.
This expedition was supported by Berghaus <www.berghaus.com> who were kind and generous to the old climbers.
Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders attempted Chombu 6360 m in North Sikkim, during 23rd September to 23rd October 2019. They were supported by Subash Rai (Sirdar), Buddha Tamang (Assistant Cook), Sanjay Rai (Cook) plus six porters and Barap Namgal and Bhaichung Bhutia’s agent team.
Victor grew up in Malaysia and Scotland. He practiced architecture in England before migrating to France in 2000 where he works as a mountain guide and author.
Victor has taken part in six expeditions to the Indian Himalaya, three times with THC members from Mumbai. He first climbed with Mick Fowler in 1979 and continues to climb with his friend as much as possible. Victor is currently president of the Alpine Club.
Lt Col Jay Prakash Kumar
The first team moved ahead from BC beating four feet deep soft snow with initially a gradual ascent and subsequently on a steep slope having a gradient of about 70 degree to reach 5197 m.
Mt Kanamo 5974 m is in the southern Zanskar ranges and is located in Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. The area is in the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, under the Spiti Wildlife Division. It experiences heavy snowfall up to six to seven feet from November to March every year making it one of the prime destinations for winter sports and wildlife in the country. Mt Kanamo has been climbed many times during autumn and spring but had never been attempted during winter by any team.
Dogra Scouts, a specialized unit of the Indian Army, conducted the first winter expedition to Mt Kanamo from 23rd Feb to 3rd Mar 2020. The team comprised of 26 members led by Lt Col Jay Prakash Kumar. The team moved by road to Kibber and established the road head camp near the village Gompa at 4143 m. 15 members moved to open the route and established the base camp. The team experienced approx two-three feet of soft snow and moderate wind conditions en route. They were able to locate a water source at 4700 m, where the team established its base camp. It took four hours for the team to reach there. On 25th Feb, the second team with eight members moved from Kibber with additional loads, to stock base camp.
The 24-member summit team was divided into two smaller groups. The first comprised of 12 members led by Lt Col Jay Prakash Kumar and they moved from Kibber on 26th Feb and occupied BC. The first summit team would attempt the summit early the next morning. Subsequently, the second team with the remaining members would attempt the summit the following day i.e. 28th Feb. However, plans changed because of sudden weather changes and a forecast of heavy precipitation with high winds from 27th – 29th Feb 2020. Hence, the first summit attempt had to be abandoned.
With a weather update indicating a clear-sky window from 1st to 3rd Mar 2020, the team leader decided to summit the peak on 1st Mar with the complete team moving together, but with a staggered time difference of one and half hours for inherent rescue capability. The tentative summit march was expected to be around 7-8 hours from Kibber and about four hours to return.
As per plan, both the summit teams left from road head camp at the pre-designated time and strength for the final ascent on 1st Mar. The teams moved till BC without any problem as the route was previously opened. The weather was clear and wind conditions were favorable. The first team moved ahead from BC beating four feet deep soft snow with initially a gradual ascent and subsequently on a steep slope having a gradient of about 70 degree to reach 5197 m. The slope was full of loose scree, which at the time of climbing had accumulated crust on its surface and verglas on rocks, making it slippery and dangerous. It took 2.5 hours to reach the point. From 5197 m, the route takes a sudden fall of 200 m to a saddle-like feature, and then again rises for 400 m to meet at the base of Mt Kanamo. The leading team had to open 200 m of the saddle area with great difficulties. The climb ahead was steep on slope with gradient of 70-75 degree with a mixture of loose scree, soft snow and boulders. The base of the peak is a large flat area with snow level of six to seven feet around this time and a gradual ascent till it meets the foot of Mt Kanamo. It took another two 2.5 hours from 5197 m to reach the foot of the peak. By now, the second team had also closed in. From the foot of the peak, up to the top, the snow accumulation level was drastically low but it had a mixture of loose scree, mud and soft snow, which made the climb difficult. The final summit ridgeline has a gradient of 70 degrees and 500 m of climb. It is another two hours of a long and difficult climb from the base to the top on a zigzag path.
Snow covered Spiti valley
Final summit ridge
At 1:00 pm on 1st Mar 2020, the 20-member climbing team of the Indian Army’s Dogra Scouts successfully summitted Mt Kanamo for the first time in winter in a single team on a single day.
After a successful climb the team descended to BC. They closed the camp, cleaned the area and descended to road head at Kibber by 9:00 pm on the same day. The team returned safely to Sumdo by road on 3rd Mar 2020.
This is the story of the first successful winter ascent of Mount Kanamo by an Indian Army team.
Lt Col Jay Prakash Kumar has participated in and led several expeditions in the Himalaya; he is a paratrooper, a sky diver and foot soldier. He has served in various operational areas of North East and Jammu & Kashmir including Siachen glacier. For his contribution in the field of mountaineering, he was conferred with a Chief-of-Army-Staff Commendation Card in 2015.
It was odd to be bound to the top of a mountain we had spent a month envisioning. It was the safest place to be in a cloud.
In August, Rushad Nanavatty and Spencer Gray climbed the south ridge of Menthosa (6443 m) in the Lahaul region (1350 m, ED2 WI4 M6). The route height is measured from the base of the icefall used to access the ridge.
As far as we know, this was the first ascent of the south ridge and first traverse (over about eight km) of the mountain. Our third teammate, Alex Marine, unfortunately experienced symptoms of serious altitude sickness and was forced to descend from base camp before the climb.
We had come to India to climb an objective in Ladakh, within the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government scrapped the state’s special constitutional status, imposed a lockdown, and revoked our climbing permit the day we landed in Delhi. We were directed to find a new objective in another state. On the strength of a photograph of Menthosa’s impressive south pillar, its location near the outer limit of the monsoon, and a bedrock map that suggested the presence of granite along a large fault, we picked Menthosa as our new objective.
Menthosa is downstream of the well-known granite walls of the Miyar valley that have received sustained attention from climbers for over 25 years. Menthosa was first climbed in 1970 via the east ridge by a British military team. It is regularly guided via a variation of the first ascent route.
Our base camp (4470 m) was in an alluvial side-valley full of pink stalks of fleeceflower and mats of rock jasmine, blue forget-me-nots, and occasional spiny blue and violet poppies. On the approach to camp, we encountered a large herd of sheep and goats tended by several herders and two rambunctious black sheepdog puppies. We also surprised a large flock of Himalayan snowcocks on one acclimatization outing.
We first faced a week of unusually heavy monsoon storms that deposited a metre of wet snow on the upper mountain and snapped the poles of our cook tent. The Indian meteorology agency reported that, at lower elevations, this storm caused the highest recorded rainfall (36 cm in one location) for a 24-hour period in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Landslides and floods killed scores of people and washed out hundreds of roads. Dorje, our cook, who comes from a long line of local farmers, spoke of how a changing climate had been making Lahaul’s summer weather increasingly wet and unpredictable.
Day 1 - glacier approach
Day 1 - icefall
On Menthosa, warm, intermittently sunny conditions quickly caused the new snow to slide or settle, but snow stability and rockfall associated with snowmelt remained our biggest concerns during the climb. Several guided parties in the area who had planned to attempt the standard east ridge abandoned their expeditions following the heavy snows. Our final acclimatization and reconnaissance trip to the base of our tentative route convinced us that most of the dangerously snow-loaded slopes had already slid. Meltwater channels indicated how quickly the snowpack was sintering after the storms.
On our summit attempt, we left base camp in the dark, reaching the base of the south ridge at dawn. A hot morning of wallowing uphill through deep snow and through a jumbled icefall led us to a roomy saddle on the south ridge (5600 m). Three days of tricky pitched-out mixed climbing followed, first on the east face under a series of prominent gendarmes, then traversing along the western aspect of the south ridge.
We had supposed the west side of the south ridge would offer more moderate climbing than we encountered. In reality, it was a sustained sheet of ice and neve, interspersed by patches and bands of variable-quality granites, and with virtually no places to bivouac. Our maps had belied the topography. In addition, the southwest cirque of Menthosa would have been a nightmare to descend, with frequent wet avalanches released from corniced slopes above and complicated open crevasses to navigate down low. We were committed. Our best way off the mountain was over the top.
The crux pitches involved dry-tooling laybacks in good incisions in the rock and a delicate top-out over an overhanging, loose pillar. The mental cruxes involved long stretches of poorly bonded neve, particularly in late afternoon sun, between sometimes tenuous ice screws and tied-off pitons. We typically found high-quality gear placements in granite faces and outcrops at the top of the ice slopes.
Day 2 - south face
Day 2 bivvy
We enjoyed one open, hanging bivouac (6220 m) on our third night when fog obscured the way forward. A bosun’s chair fashioned out of one of our ropes provided a tiny bit of comfort. The following evening, as we climbed perfect neve and ice to a bivouac spot just below the summit, a lightning storm in the foothills illuminated the glacier beneath us, flashing neon white between the Milky Way above and a cloud inversion below. The edge of the monsoon hovered a few miles to the south, and we were grateful it did not envelope us that night.
Day 3 - south ridge
Day 3 - south ridge
Day 4 - south ridge
Day 5 - summit bivvy
We summited on the morning of 26th August then spent another day on the summit ridge waiting for a white-out to clear. It was odd to be bound to the top of a mountain we had spent a month envisioning. It was the safest place to be in a cloud.
Day 6 - descent
Day 6 - descent
Day 6 - descent
Menthosa after storm
The next morning, the sunlit peaks of Zanskar and Kishtwar shone along the rim of a steely overcast sky as we started our descent. The great granite walls of Miyar valley were still caked in ice. The metallic blue of this landscape, almost like a cyanotype, is one of our lasting memories. We spent one long day navigating the glaciated standard east ridge route to basecamp.
Future parties may be drawn, like we were, to Menthosa’s unclimbed south pillar. The pillar is cleaved diagonally by a dike across its south face. This attractively prominent weakness can only be accessed after crossing about 300 vertical metres of loose rock at its base. In its centre it also crosses several sections of overhung flakes arranged like guillotines. The combination of the heavy snowfall and variable rock quality eliminated the south pillar as a reasonable objective for us, but it likely has sections of worthwhile granitic rock. There are undoubtedly places to bivouac on this pillar’s steep lower two-thirds, but we were surprised how few we could make out as we climbed alongside it on the south ridge.
We thank the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, Patagonia, Aftab Kaushik, Chewang Motup, Fateh Singh Akoi, Harish Kapadia, Karan Singh, Kaushal Desai, Raj Kumar, and Yangdu Gombu for their assistance.
In August 2019, Rushad Nanavatty and Spencer Gray climbed the south ridge of Menthosa (6443 m) in Lahaul. This was the first ascent of the south ridge and first traverse of the mountain.
Spencer Gray is an American climber who has completed new rock, ice, and alpine routes around the world. He works in public policy related to energy and natural resources. Gray is a native of the U.S. state of Montana and is currently based in Portland, Oregon.
As I say, dreaming is the only thing I’ve been good at. Much as I loved climbing, I seldom achieved anything noteworthy, other than the satisfaction of surviving a good day out with friends.
All who love mountains are dreamers. Why else would otherwise sane men and women leave the comfort and safety of home behind, draw out their savings and use up their annual leave in order to spend a few weeks indulging in the pointless exercise of attempting to reach a high point in some distant country? If not risking life and limb climbing mountains, at least making a journey on foot among inhospitable terrain, when they could otherwise stay at home and go for a walk round the local park? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But dreams are like that.
Dreaming is the only thing I’ve been good at. A failure at most subjects I left school with nothing to show for ten years of formal education, but had dreaming been on the national curriculum I’d have got an A-star and gone to university.
Being a failure has given me a life of adventure and ten thousand memories, for mountains filled the gap where brains should have led to a worthwhile career and a decent bank balance. Gazing at a distant tower of cumulus that morphed into Mont Blanc or Kangchenjunga was far more alluring than the reality of convention, and by sheer fluke enabled me earn a living by writing about them.
As I say, dreaming is the only thing I’ve been good at. Much as I loved climbing, I seldom achieved anything noteworthy, other than the satisfaction of surviving a good day out with friends. But having to face my limitations as a climber was no bad thing, for I came to realize that being among mountains was what it was all about. Not just standing on their summits, but being surrounded by them, questioning what lay beyond them, being confronted by their scale, intrigued by their structure, and seduced by their beauty, until they filled every dream both waking and sleeping. Those dreams led to a series of unforgettable journeys, until I was able to echo the words of Bill Tilman, when he wrote: “I felt I could go on like this for ever, that life had little better to offer than to march day after day in an unknown country to an unattainable goal.”
Fifty years ago I’d take a tent, a fortnight’s food and a map of questionable value and disappear to either Morocco’s Atlas mountains or the Pyrenees. In the Atlas I’d visit Berber villages because they seemed to belong to another age. I’d spend time with goat herders, drink mint tea with muleteers, cross barren passes and search for the distant Sahara from 4000 m summits. In the Pyrenees I’d avoid habitation and be drawn deeper into their recesses; I’d sleep beside mirror-like lakes and cross passes with unpronounceable names, weaving my way from France to Spain and back again with no need to show a passport.
Then I went to the Alps. I couldn’t afford to but a publisher had faith in me, and my wife offered unconditional support. They were dreamers too. It was there that I made a number of multi-day journeys and wrote about them in magazines and books, and travelled around the UK in winter months to share my passion for wild places through a variety of lectures.
But I never made it to the Himalaya until 1989. It was then that serendipity stepped in and I found myself on the trail to Kangchenjunga. Spending more than a month in Nepal didn’t cost me a penny. All I had to do was walk and gather experiences. It seemed that all my Christmases had arrived at once. Was this a dream?
Before I went to the Himalaya I imagined it would be the glacier-hung giants that would dominate. Not so. Within hours (maybe minutes) of setting out the magic of the foothills had won me over; the villages, terraced fields stepping down into valleys clothed with sub-tropical jungle; the birds and insects whose conversations filled every waking moment. There was Kangch itself sailing a raft of mist ten days’ walk away, and the Singalila ridge off to my right forming a boundary beyond which another land lay hidden.
The mountains could wait. There was too much living to be done than to squander it on anticipation, for I came to realize that when making a dream journey, life is instantaneous. There is no yesterday or tomorrow. Now – this moment in time – is all that matters, so live it for all it’s worth.
I did just that, and grew rich.
Emerging from my tent on a foothill ridge as day rose from darkness, was something worth reliving. It was every bit as special as the frost-gemmed yak pasture below Ratong and Koktang where I stood at midnight reaching for stars close enough to touch, while through the Ratong la a Sikkimese peak could be seen, giving no hint that sixteen years later I’d pitch my tent in its shadow. Between foothill and yak pasture the trail had lured me on, one foot in front of the other; each step leading deeper into an enchanted world.
Standing below the southwest face of Kangch in the bitter chill of a November dawn was a life-changer, for I knew that I’d be back. It took two years though, for writing work took me to Turkey’s Mount Ararat and the Caucasus mountains of Russia, as well as the summer Alps chewing up the months that might have been spent elsewhere, but were filled with other unregretted adventures. But then an old climbing friend joined me for a trek round Annapurna, into a land with layers of culture so different from those of eastern Nepal, but no less alluring for being shared with others with similar dreams. Crossing the Thorong la after a two-day snowstorm and descending into the rain shadow of the Himalaya was only one highlight among many. Later, I went alone into the Annapurna sanctuary to be mesmerized by Machhapuchhare, before wandering through fields of millet and thatch-roofed villages on the way out to Pokhara.
Manaslu was next. The Nepalese government announced that a limited number of trekking permits were being made available for the first time. Once more I was one of the lucky ones, and made my way through the gorges of the Buri Gandaki to Samagaon and Samdo knowing what it was to be blessed. The Larkya la led to one of those views you know will never fade from memory; then it was away from glaciers and down to warmer climes, joining the Annapurna trail at Dharapani before making a devious cross-country route to Pokhara once more. If ever there were a living dream journey, this was it.
Of course, no-one who loves mountains will rest until they’ve seen the highest of them all, so my next Himalayan quest took me from Jiri to the foot of Everest at a time when you could walk for an hour or so and see no other Westerners. There were passes to cross in solitude, and yak herders’ huts to sleep in, and eye-squinting scenes to gaze on while tears slid down my cheeks. From the cold wind, of course.
Kangch SW Face
Solo trekking in the Khumbu
Serendipity smiled again the following summer when my wife and I were crossing the Ötztal Alps in Austria. Arriving one afternoon at the Braunschweiger hut, the first person we met was a Sherpa who was working there for the summer. After spending an evening with him, Kirken became a lifelong friend and for the next twenty years acted as my Himalayan Mr Fixit. We met again in Kathmandu at the end of summer, where he’d arranged for Amit Rai to accompany me on a journey to Langtang. Small of stature but a giant in spirit, Amit’s company was priceless, for he opened doors – both physical and metaphorical – and made the trek special, whether we stayed in lodges or camped among the glaciers at what seemed like the very heart of the Himalaya.
Back in Kathmandu Kirken and I discussed the possibility of crossing Dolpo. The only way I could afford to go there was to organize a small expedition whose members would meet most of my costs. They did, and in the autumn of 1995 we chartered a flight to what was then a grass airstrip above the Thuli Bheri river, where we were met by a team of porters and Sherpas, and my friend Amit Rai who would be our cook. From there, and with Kirken’s guidance, we set out to make a crossing of Dolpo’s magical back-of-beyond. Totally different from anything I’d previously encountered, we journeyed through the hidden land as if in a dream. Once again, that was a life-changing experience, and not only for the joyful revelations of Dolpo itself, for on the final pass we sat, Kirken and I, gazing west where far off a great block of snow and ice drifted in and out of clouds. ‘Saipal,’ said Kirken. ‘I must go there.’
We did, but that was sixteen months later. First I had a promise to fulfill, which took me back to Manaslu with Min, my ever-patient wife, for whom it was to be the first of many Himalayan journeys.
The route that Kirken and I made to Saipal was a devious one. First we travelled west to Gukuleswar then hiked up the Chamliya river valley – in places no more than a deep slice cut through the ravaged middle mountains – until we came to the foot of Api. It snowed there and we saw little, but as we backtracked for a couple of days, rhododendrons in full bloom formed a guard of honour and primula carpets took the place of snowdrifts. My spirits soared.
We were seven: Kirken and I and five stout-hearted porters who laughed at every challenge that stood in the way as we now headed east, lost for much of the time. We ran short of food, but were generously fed with spicy potatoes and boiled eggs by villagers who coughed and sneezed around us as we ate. From them Kirken caught a fever. I too, but mine turned out to be TB, though that was not diagnosed for many years – by which time my lungs were shot and heart permanently damaged. But hey, there are no regrets. That’s just payment for a life of adventure.
Six months after our traverse of Western Nepal, I was back in the Himalaya to record a radio programme about the journey plant hunter Joseph Dalton Hooker had made among the foothills of Kangchenjunga, almost 150 years earlier. So, using Hooker’s travels as my excuse, I was able to rekindle the flames of my own Himalayan love affair that had first been lit there a decade before. Then, it was Kangch’s southwest face that had been the goal; this time I went first to Pangpema through that avenue of sky-scratching giants, before crossing the Mirgin la to Tseram and the Yalung valley; once more living the dream.
Min wanted to see Everest, so we went with a young Sherpa who’d worked for Kirken before. He needed work, and I knew from my trek in Langtang with Amit, that someone with local knowledge would add a bonus to each day along the trail. Krishna was shy of us on the bone-crunching bus to Jiri, but before we’d crossed the first ridge of our trek, he was like a brother, and the photograph I have of him and me squatting in the snow on Gokyo Ri’s summit, is one that never fails to bring a smile. It shows two brothers from two different continents, content with the day and wishing to be nowhere else.
By now I was struggling with my breath on some of the loftier passes. This was evident when I was sent to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca as a journalist to make a journey around Alpamayo, once voted the world’s most beautiful mountain. Breathing may have been a challenge there, but the Andean giants hung with glaciers and topped by cornices made of meringue were a worthy compensation. At least I could see them. I had only to open my eyes and the mountains were there before me. Unlike my friend Ray who was losing his sight. It had always been poor, but now he was blind in one eye and had very little vision left in the other. He loved mountains too, but wandering among them was becoming so difficult he needed friends to act as his eyes.
‘My one regret,’ he confessed one day, ‘is that I never made it to the Himalaya.’
I got in touch with Kirken, and a few months later he gathered a small team to accompany four of us (including Ray) on a 24 day trek which took us eastward from Gorkha in the Manaslu foothills, into and over the Ganesh Himal, up to the head of Langtang, then across the Laurebina la to Helambu and down to the Kathmandu valley. On that most memorable of journeys Ray taught me that sight can make you blind, for with his severely limited vision, he had to build pictures through his other senses. What he gained during those 24 days was a deeper understanding of the landscape’s multi-layered textures than those of us with 20/20 vision. He came home a changed man. So did I.
Yet more Himalayan dream journeys were added in the years that followed, alongside summers spent guiding or on writing commissions among the Alps, Pyrenees and Norway. There was a return to the Khumbu with my daughter who wanted to spend time in the Buddhist gompas; an aborted trek to Kangchenjunga once again, this time cut short by severe breathing difficulties. There was a trek along the Singalila ridge and the Goecha la in Sikkim; a repeat circuit of Annapurna with Min, staying in lodges, and yet another trek with Kirken and a small group of friends around Manaslu. This time I doubted my ability to get over the Larkya la and suggested I would turn back at Samdo to wait for the others in Gorkha. Kirken would not hear of it, and arranged for a horse to carry me from our highest village to within 150 m of the pass, where I staggered slowly through knee-deep snow to the prayer flags at the summit, thinking this would be my Himalayan swan song.
Having crossed the 5000 m pass of the Larkya la, porters take a well-earned rest
In the years that followed I grabbed several opportunities to lead cultural tours to Bhutan and Ladakh. Though immensely satisfying in themselves, they were not as exciting as the dream journeys on foot that had played such an important part in my life. But I was there, soaking in the multi-faceted beauty of the Himalaya, celebrating every moment as if it were the last.
Then out of the blue came an email from Kirken. ‘Mugu to be open,’ it said. ‘Porters are hard to find there, but mules carry loads. Where mules can go, so can a horse. I’ll get you one. When shall we go?’
Ah, Kirken the tempter; he knew how to dangle a dream, and with Mugu being among the last of our untrod regions, it was impossible to say no. Twelve months later I gathered four mountain friends and with Min, who by now loved the wild places as much as I did, we flew to Jumla with Kirken. There we were met by our local crew, the mules and Sangye, the short-legged horse that would carry me through Mugu and over a series of 4000 m passes on what was to be my final Himalayan journey. So different from any other, it proved to be every bit as rewarding as those that had gone before it. It was an adventure with its own terms and conditions, on which I was content to let each day play its own tune.
And now a life-time’s dream journeys have become just that —journeys among dreams. They can be brought to mind in an instant and are, perhaps, the best of all, for there are no more visas or permits to juggle, no more trucks or broken down buses leading to far-off trailheads, no more days spent with fingers crossed waiting for a flight to a remote location; a flight that may never appear. Instead I can be transported in an instant to any place I wish between here and there, day or night, with the certain knowledge that there’ll be no more problems to breathe when crossing the next 5000 m pass.
That, surely, is something to celebrate….
Reynolds reminisces about days spent wandering in the mountains—now that he cant travel to these places anymore, his dreams take him back to them.
Kev Reynolds is a freelance writer and lecturer with more than fifty books to his name, among them Abode of the Gods (Cicerone, 2015), a narrative account of eight of his Nepalese journeys. Being published within weeks of the 2015 earthquakes, all proceeds from the book were donated to Doug Scott’s Community Action Nepal to help rebuild devastated communities in the country he came to think of as his second home. After a lifetime roaming among mountains, he claims to be The Man with the World’s Best Job.
By now we had heard a solitary rooster and were not to be stopped by fallen trees. After a kilometre, we found the water pipeline which would lead us to the Upper Chongrong village.
A thunderstorm welcomed us in ‘The Land of Lightning’ Sikkim, as we hurriedly took shelter in the hotel in Jorethang. This mood continued through the trek. Dr Susanta Bhattacharyya (Santo), Prof Saumitra Das, Sumitava Samanta and I arrived in Jorethang to do a new low altitude trek which would connect four holy monasteries namely Tashiding, Silnon, Hungri and Dubdi in West Sikkim. Out of these, Tashiding and Silnon are connected via road and Dubdi is only two km from Yuksom. The only short walking trail is to Hungri. Regular trekkers visit the first three on the motor road and reach Hungri via a walk from Gerethang. However our plan was to connect these monasteries via village paths and forest trails. We charted a trek route and decided against taking porters or a guide. We had GPS, our intuition and the guidance of local people. Thus on 11th April a two-hour drive brought us to Tashiding town where we stayed in a tourist lodge.
After breakfast we set out. The monastery is two km from there. The path is a village trail with concrete slabs and stairs made for pilgrims. En route there were ‘Mendang’ – beautiful walls with flat stones on which are painted and inlaid sacred texts, prayers or images. We reached the monastery, considered to be the holiest of all Sikkim monasteries in 1.5 hours.
Tashiding hill is conical and is the termination of a long spur that runs from a shoulder of Kangchenjunga. At the foot of the hill the great Rangit receives waters from its tributary, the Rathong, which rises from the south face of Kangchenjunga. The beautiful monastery crowns the hill to pat 1465 m.
It was founded in 1641 by Ngadak Sempa Chempo Phunshok Rigzing who belonged to the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Ngadak was one of the three wise men who held the consecration ceremony crowning the first King of Sikkim at Yuksom. It was extended and renovated in 1717 during the reign of the third Chogyal Chakdor Namgyal. There are several legends linked to the most revered monastery. According to one local legend Guru Padmasambhava shot an arrow into the air to select a place. He sat in meditation at the spot that the arrow landed, and that site eventually became the site of the Tashiding Monastery.
Another legend relates to the three monks who consecrated the first Chogyal of Sikkim at Yuksom. It is said that they saw an unusual divine bright light shining on top of the Kangchenjunga, which reflected on where the present Tashiding monastery has been built.
The ‘Bhumchu Ceremony’ is a popular religious festival held on the 14th and 15th day of the first month of Tibetan calendar. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava, while teaching the tantric system of emancipation from the cycle of mundane existence to the royalty in Tibet, sanctified the holy vase with holy water, which is now kept in Tashiding monastery and revered during the Bhumchu festival.
The most holy Chhoedten (Stupa) in Sikkim is also at Tashiding. Thong-Warang-Drol (Saviour by mere sight) is considered so sacred that the mere act of beholding it cleanses all sins. Because of its reputation, this Stupa is a sacred object for pilgrims.
It began to rain as we retraced our steps but we visited a holy cave on our way back.
We started at 8:00 am the next day along a giant Mendang on our left and crossed Sinek bazaar. We took the village route through dense bamboo bushes. After an hour’s walk, we reached the Tashiding trekkers’ hut. Rathong chu was visible from time to time and Tashiding monastery was on the south east. The motor road crisscrossed our path. In another hour we were at a small village of 10-12 houses. We rested – a villager brought us ‘mohi’ (buttermilk mixed with spices and sugar). We reached Silnonat around 3:00 pm. We settled in Daisy’s home stay and then went to visit the monastery.
Kabru from Yoksum
Situated at a height of 1980 m Silnon is the ‘The suppressor of intense fear’ and is now mainly a lamasery.
Ngadag Rinchhen Gon, the grandson of Saint Ngadag Sempa Chhenpo (one of the three pioneer Lamas of Sikkim), built the Silnon monastery in 1716 A.D, as recorded by Chhogyal Thutob Namgyal. Lama Ngadag Sempa Chhenpo used to guide the monks of Tashiding Gompa in religious matters from here.
The Gompa was said to have been built upon a pond and hence the site was considered auspicious. The present structure was built in 1992. The main Altar contains the Statues of Buddha and Eight Bodhisatvas. Beside the Gompa is a circular structure with three seats.
The monastery was closed but we enjoyed the afternoon playing football with the teenage lamas. Once we were home, it began to rain and rained through the night.
The next day’s trek would be through dense jungle and we had to chart our own route. The rain finally stopped at 9.40 am and we started our trek, walking north and entering the forest. The woods were ancient, dense, dark and deep. Sumatra’s GPS was not working and our guide was a small opening at the top of the ridge in north. We moved northwards to reach the top of the ridge as planned.
The forest was so dense that we had to constantly shout for each other to keep track. Finally we were lost. We started moving westwards. Half an hour later we found the opening in the forest which would take us to the north face of the hill as planned. But the rainfall in the last few days had made the route non-negotiable so we decided to not venture to the other side but continue our westward trek to Hungri.
But there was no way forward. Sumitava the least experienced wanted to return to Silnon. Soumitra wished to move ahead. I was in a dilemma. Returning would jeopardize our trek but spending a rainy night in the jungle was not a good idea. It was 12.30 pm. I decided to search for the route for another half an hour and then take a decision. Soumitra and Santo went on to find the route.
Meanwhile there was another problem—we were attacked by hundreds of leeches. Soumitra shouted that he could see a small track but a fallen tree was obstructing his path and it needed to be cleared. We all hurried up to move the tree. With new enthusiasm we continued westward. By now we had heard a solitary rooster and would not be stopped by fallen trees. After a kilometre, we found the water pipeline which would lead us to the Upper Chongrong village. Now we could see Silnon and Tashiding monasteries as well as the dense forest that we had navigated. We came down to the un-metalled road to reach Lower Chongrong. In ten minutes we were at Neesha village and took the forest path from there.
The track from here goes through dense forest but is well marked. It had begun to rain, the path was never ending and the battle with the leeches continued. Finally we reached the monastery. We were prepared to stay out in the open but within an hour the head lama of the monastery — Tazang who was also the caretaker of the homestay arrived with few of his disciples. There were two rooms attached to a hall and kitchen which he opened for us. The monastery had been ruined in the 2011 earthquake but restoration work was on. After giving us food they returned with a promise to return the next day.We were left alone in tranquillity—the rain and mist made the place haunting, serene and majestic at the same time.
Next morning Tazang came with many of his disciples and gave us a history of the monastery which was more mythology.
We started at around 9:00 am the next day for Dubde. The path was mostly downhill. We reached Tsong village and Dubde monastery was visible on the ridge. After crossing Phamrong falls, we took the jungle route and started climbing the ridge. A bit later we were standing at the boundary of Dubde monastery, 2100 m. We stayed there for half an hour and continued our trek to Yuksom.
Chhogyal Phuntshog Namgyal (1604-1670) founded Dubde (the Hermit’s cell) in 1647 A.D. in veneration to the Patron Saint Gyalwa Lhatsun Chhenpo (1595-1652). Later, it was fully reconstructed by the Third Lhatsun Jigme Pawo in 1723 A.D. during the reign of the fourth Lhari Rinzing or Temi Lharipa the Chhogyal Gyurmed Namgyal (1707-1733).
Sikkim’s famous painter painted the precious Debri paintings of Maha Shidhas of Sikkim, the lineages of high lamas, Guru Tshog-Shing and various protecting deities that embellished the inner walls. The monastery belongs to the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and follows the tradition of Mindroling lineage.
We reached Yuksom amidst rain around 4:00 pm and thus completed our monastic trail.
This trail is a satisfying trek for those who want to walk at a low altitude and still enjoy history, photography and bird watching. On clear days the Kangchenjunga and other peaks are visible from various part of the route adding to the beauty.
A low altitude hike in Sikkim connecting four monasteries filled with the magic of history and mythology.
Nilay is a frequent Himalayan traveller, who on slightest pretext ventures into the mountains to get away from his business and the hot and humid Kolkata climate. Though he has undertaken a few expeditions, his passion is the middle Himalaya with its people, flora and fauna. He is a photographer and an avid reader on the Himalaya.
The Hidden Wonder of Spiti
We reached the Parilungbi chu by following the Passi nala. In the afternoon, we camped by the side of the Parilungbi chu (4240 m). Since it was the end of October, water levels were low making it possible to pitch our tents.
As I left the anchor, the iron crate hanging on a pulley started to move along a metal cable. It could move about half way over the deep river gorge. After that, it had to be pulled by a rope to reach the other side of the river. It was the only logistic available for a person for going from the Kibber village to the Chicham village until 2017. The trekkers, who had gone for the Parang la trek earlier, had this experience; the villagers had it every day. The river, Parelungbi chu was hardly visible, due to haze and dark shadows of the narrow gorge.
Parelungbi chu has emerged from the glacier of Pk 6005 located on the Parang dhar, west of the Parang la. It flows south and then meets with the Pakshi chu. After that, it gets the name Parelungbi chu, flows to the west and meets with Spiti river near the Kie gompa.
This river becomes Parelungbi chu after meeting with the Pakshi chu although it is a mere a linear flow of the Pakshi chu, which carries more water because the name Parelungbi chu has been used historically since the time people began to immigrate to Spiti from the 7th century onwards.
Pakshi chu emerges from the glacier of Pk 6204 on the water divider ridge of Pakshi Lamo glacier. The peak can be seen from the top of Kanamo in the east.
I started focusing on this region in 2010, when we went for an expedition to the Lakhang peak. In 2015, during the exploration of the Shilla nala, I saw the Pakshi Lamo satellite glacier and learnt that this was unknown even to the local people.
I started developing an idea, supported by information about this gorge, and discussed my observations with my young mountaineer friend, Abhijit Banik. He also saw the gorge from Pk 6066 over the Pakshi Lamo main glacier in 2017. Nabarun and Abhijit were fascinated with the idea immediately and started making plans to explore this virgin area in the post-monsoon season of 2018.
Sendil Solai (leader), Abhijit Banik, Nabarun Bhattacharya, Alif Sheikh and I reached Kaja on 24th October, 2018 for an exploratory expedition to the unclimbed Pk 6204 at the head of the Pakshi chu. Though we got permission from the IMF, the ADC in Kaja was not ready to allow us to move because the Spiti region had faced a natural calamity with many fatalities during August-September. Rescue operations were on and winter was approaching. Actually, Ranjan Negi meant well and despite our persuasion it was hard to convince him. Finally he agreed with a condition that we return to Kaja by 2nd November. We started our preparations and arranged for a car to take us to Kibber village.
On 26th October, we reached Kibber (4020 m) and tried to get some information on the route but failed. We thought about trying one of the three small nalas which have joined the Palilungbi chu from the south side. We moved to the east, keeping the Kanamo peak to our right. It is an easy gradual moraine slope leading to a plain. At the end of a vast grass plain, Rong nala flows to join Parilungbi chu by creating a deep rocky gorge which is impossible to access because of a waterfall at the end of the gorge. So we moved further east, crossing the Rong nala into the frozen Passi nala. We reached the Parilungbi chu by following the Passi nala. In the afternoon, we camped by the side of the Parilungbi chu (4240 m). Since it was the end of October, water levels were low making it possible to pitch our tents. Both sides of the gorge are covered with straight rock walls of about two thousand feet. The width is shallow, making it difficult for daylight to enter.
First barrier lake
Frozen Passi nala
It was very chilly at night. Next day, we moved eastward again. Forty minutes of walking brought us to the confluence the Parilungbi chu and the Pakshi chu. From here, moving along the Parilungbi chu, could take us to the reach the Parang la route. The water was a mere trickle so we could trek easily, crossing the nala a number of times to make our trail. At the end of the day, just before the first ‘natural dammed lake’, we got some space for pitching tents.
A natural dammed lake/barrier lake/landslide lake is the natural damming of a river by landslides. In Spiti and Ladakh, the Himalayas/Trans-Himalayas are relatively new so the rock is sedimentary and brittle leading to frequent landslides and rock avalanches. We observed by the watermarks that these lakes could be 20-25 ft deep.
The third lake—dry
Gohna tal or Birehi tal was an example of barrier lake in the Garhwal region on the Birehi Ganga which was created in 1893 but was destroyed due to natural calamity in the mid-1970s.
In the short journey of the Pakshi chu, there are four barrier lakes! Every lake was frozen, covered with thick Verglas. We reached up to the third lake but the fourth lake is bigger than the others. It is deep and both sides of the lake are covered with straight rocky walls. Moreover, the Verglas was so hard and thick that we could not break that. To attempt Pk 6204, we were required to cross the lake and spend another day to reach the snout point. Only then could we attempt the peak. It was difficult for us to decide, thus, we were compelled to reconsider our initial plan.
After returning back to camp II, after studying the map, we decided to try Peak 6169, which could be accessed through the rock gully before the fourth lake. The map and the Google Earth image seemed to suggest that the west ridge connected to the peak is rocky and broken and, in this season, with a huge deposition of snow and ice, climbing through that ridge would require high level of technical competence.
Next day, we pitched our third camp before the fourth lake. Leaving all the porters at camp, five members moved through the rock gully with equipment to establish the next camp. After about five hours of ascending, we reached 5280 m where pitching tents was feasible. It was 31st October, and bad weather would take over the afternoons. We had heavy snowfall that evening and weather predictions for 2nd – 3rd November were worrisome.
We would have to attempt the summit from this camp and it would have to be done in maximum time of 13 hours. It continued to snow all night.
At 4:00 am, we started moving on two ropes to open the route simultaneously. It was knee deep snow making it impossible to move fast. After crossing a few humps, we moved to the right and took the face. At around 12 noon, we arrived at a bowl, filled with waist deep soft snow. A small cwm indeed but difficult to cross, even at the apparently easier portion. We moved eastward, where snow deposition was less. At about 1:30 pm, the GPS showed the height as 5700 m.
We realized that this peak could not be scaled on the same day. There was a seventy degree wall covered with lumpy snow, up to the peak and we observed a sharp rocky knob over the west ridge just before peak. We were tired and it began to snow. So we began to return. After reaching the summit camp, we hurriedly packed and descended to the lower camp. The evening weather was good. After crossing the three lakes, we returned to camp I exhausted. Heavy snowfall continued through the night.
On 3rd November, there was 18 inches of snow. We packed camp and moved back to Kibber village where a government car was waiting for us. At Kaja, we learnt that Kunzum la was closed for the season. We returned to Shimla through Rekong Peo.
This was a maiden exploration of the Pakshi chu gorge and an attempt on the unclimbed Pk 6169.
Debashish Bardhan works with the Indian railways. He began mountaineering in 1991 and ever since has participated in several expedition and treks. He is especially interested in exploratory expeditions in lesser known gorges and mountains. These include Itchu col in Fulangpa valley, Zanskar, Takling la from the north side (THJ – Vol 68) and Shilla nala—Gyundi gorge—which are pioneering explorations.
After walking for nine hours they stood on the summit. The weather was great and the view from the top was unforgettable.
In 2018, Ladakh Mountain Guides Association (LMGA) organized an expedition to the Skitmang region in eastern Ladakh, around 140 km from Leh. The target was an unnamed peak at a height of 6364 m. With much excitement and resolve, eight mountain guides signed-up for the expedition—Jigmed from Stok, Rigzen and Tsewang from Nubra, Rigzin from Tia, Tsewang from Kungyam, Dorjay from Leh, Angchok from Digar, Stanzin from Shara.
On 29th September the team left Leh in two cars loaded with food and equipment. The enthusiasm was palpable. A five-hour drive brought them to the beautiful village of Skitmang. The loads were distributed amongst team members. Since it was an alpine-style expedition, there were no porters or support.
The view en route
Each was responsible for carrying his own load as well as common gear so the bags weighed between 28 and 32 kg. It was time to start the trek.
In a couple of hours, they reached the first camp just below the Skitmang nunnery (Gompa). Three tents and a kitchen in place, the team enjoyed a good dinner under the twinkling stars and had a restful night.
On 30th September morning they started the trek to base camp at 5250 m. Their first stop was the nunnery from some tea. Here they got an opportunity to interact with the head monk and some students.
After a 5.5-hour walk, they reached base camp where they were greeted by snow. As they set up camp, it started to get extremely cold. However, what distracted them and even made the boys smile was the first view of three majestic peaks, all above 6000 m.
That wasn’t all! On the other side, they could see the glorious ‘Ladakh Matterhorn peak’ called Chokula.
After an early Ladakhi dinner, they packed gears for the summit and discussed plans for climbing.
At 3:30 am, after a light breakfast, the team proceeded for a summit push. The powder snow of more than two feet made it quite difficult to walk so they chose a central route to the summit. The approach from the base camp to the summit was long and arduous since the peak was shaped like a dome. After walking for nine hours they stood on the summit. The weather was great and the view from the top was unforgettable.
There were some difficulties during the descent due to warm weather the snow became quite soft making it difficult to walk. After a four-hour struggle, they finally reached base camp.
Needless to say, they were tired and hungry but also extremely happy and thankful. Hot tea, a freshly cooked meal and sleep was all that was needed.
After breakfast, they loaded equipment and cleaned camp before starting for Skitmang village. This short expedition was officially and successfully complete.
In 2018, LMGA organized an expedition to the Skitmang region in eastern Ladakh, around 140 km from Leh to climb an unnamed peak at a height of 6364 m. The mountain guides who went on the expedition were Jigmed, Rigzen Tsewang, Rigzin, Tsewang, Dorjay, Angchok and Stanzin.
This note was sent by The Ladakh Mountain Guides Association. The LGMA wishes to promote and popularize Ladakh as a world class mountain climbing destination as well as empowering the present and future mountain guides across the region. LGMA seeks to develop and maintain the standards of practice that drive consistency in the mountain guiding profession and a model code of professional ethics for mountain guides in accordance with the standards of the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association).
The ice field and the wall here were separated by a bergschrund. Above the ice wall, there was a depression. The southeast face of Jupkia could be seen on the left of this depression.
In 2002, several members of the Climbers’ Circle, a mountaineering club in Kolkata, had trekked from Uttarakhand to Himachal Pradesh through the Borasu pass via a relatively unknown route. This route was through the Gibson pass, named after distinguished British mountaineer Jack Gibson, who first crossed the pass in 1948. While crossing the pass, members of the trekking team noticed a peak to the east of the Borasu pass, which was later identified as Jupkia, 6279 m. Since then, the peak was on the wish list of the members of the club. Finally, in August 2017, the club set out to fulfill that wish. I was a part of this 2017 team that climbed the mountain successfully.
The expedition started mid-August 2017. The team headed to Sangla via a previously booked light commercial vehicle. Sangla is a small town in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, situated on the right bank of the Baspa river. It was a 14 hour journey from Kalka to Sangla, with a few stops en route.
Jupkia nala flowing through the Baspa valley
Base camp captured from a distance
The next morning, we went to the district headquarter Reckong Peo for administrative formalities. As Jupkia is situated at the Indo-Tibetan border, we needed the inner line permits for the expedition team, including the members, porters, cooks, and guides. The entire day was spent in completing these formalities. The next day, we did final shopping and packing before leaving for the expedition.
On 24th August 2017, we left Sangla after breakfast for our road-head near Ranikanda with Chitkul en route. All seven members of the team, accompanied by two guides, one cook, one helper, and twenty porters went in different vehicles. After crossing Chitkul, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation permission letter and our inner line permits were checked at an ITBP post.
Our approach march started from the roadhead at around 12 noon. First, we crossed the Baspa river and then started moving westward along its left bank. After an hour and a half, we turned left towards a valley in the south, leaving the river behind. This valley is common for trekkers to the Borasu pass. We gradually gained height along the lush green valley, dotted with Bhojpatra (Himalayan Birch) trees. We were following the right bank of a stream known as the ‘Jupkia nala’ that joins the Baspa further downstream. At around 3.30 pm we reached 3870 m and decided to camp as it was already late.
The next day hiking through the grassy path above the stream, we followed the right bank of Jupkia nala to reach the ‘tree line’. From there, we had to move through small rocks which became bigger, leading to the snout of the Jupkia glacier. To negotiate the difficulties of the glacier, we turned left and climbed high to a ridge leaving the glacier below.
I was part of the team searching for a suitable place to establish base camp. We found a few sites by the sides of the ridge which would have been convenient, but we kept moving ahead so that it would be easier to ferry the loads to the higher camps in the coming days. Since we did not find a suitable campsite along the ridge, we descended to the lateral moraine of the glacier to our right. We crossed the moraine and decided to set up our base camp on the glacier itself, at 4680 m. It was not a very suitable place to establish a camp, as one could hear the water running underneath, and there were a few glacier tables around, yet was the most convenient one we could find. It took six-seven hours for all our team members to reach. We could see the Borasu pass directly to the west from our camp, whereas, Jupkia was seen to our east.
Jupkia Expedition Route Map (Google Earth)
On 26th August, the weather was bad in the morning but it cleared a little bit in the afternoon. Three of us went ahead to recce the next campsite. The route ahead was entirely through the lateral moraine of the glacier. One had to walk through thousands of glacier tables for an hour to reach the glacier field, where the glacier gradually turned towards the southeast and met with another glacier coming out of a gully from the northeast. We established camp 1 on a moraine ridge at the junction of these two glaciers, at 5040 m. We had found two route options to reach camp 1 from base camp, one involving a walk through the entire moraine negotiating rocks of all sizes, and another, involving crossing the glacier field directly. The latter route was riskier, as it had some enormous open crevasses, but it was less tiresome. So over the next two days, we took the latter route while ferrying loads to camp 1. It took us around four hours to reach camp 1, with the weather not in our favour.
On 29th August, seven of us occupied camp 1. Three of us went ahead to recce for camp 2, which was also our summit camp. Although we could not locate a site for camp 2, we got an idea of the route ahead and decided to find a campsite on our way the next day.
The route ahead of camp 1 was a bit technical. Firstly, we had to move through the glacier coming from the gully. Initially, the gradient of the glacier was gradual, but later it increased to almost 75°. There was a flat region top of this slab with some huge crevasses to negotiate. Upon crossing these crevasses, was an icefall.
Crevasses to negotiate on way to summit camp. Jupkia in the distance
The depression and the route to the summit
On the left lateral part of this icefall, there were rocks and ice along with fresh snow. We preferred to take this route up to a big ice field just above the icefall. On crossing this ice field, we found ourselves at the base of an ice wall. The wall had some crevasses in it. Till now we had not used any rope, but to climb this wall, ropes were needed. We continued to use ropes even after we climbed the wall because, on this part of the route, there were some open and hidden crevasses due to fresh snowfall in the preceding days. Here, at an altitude of 5610 m, we found a comparatively flat ice field and decided to set up camp 2. Leaving our loads we returned to Camp 1. On 31st August, four of us occupied camp 2. Three teammates returned to base camp.
That afternoon, three of us began to ‘open the route’. Surrounding our summit camp was a vast ice field, covered with a thin layer of fresh snow. This thin layer of snow covered the open crevasses entirely along the path. At the end of this ice field, we found an 80° ice wall, alongside which was another vast ice field of lesser gradient. This gradually led us to the bottom of another ice wall. The ice field and the wall here were separated by a bergschrund. Above the ice wall, there was a depression. The southeast face of Jupkia could be seen on the left of this depression. We had found some crevasses just above the bergschrund, so we fixed rope in this section using some ice and rock pitons, as some exposed rocks were visible in the upper portion of the wall, and returned to the summit camp.
We had decided a summit attempt on 1st September at 3:00 a.m., but the weather turned bad from 31st evening onwards. The weather continued to deteriorate further. On 2nd September, we awoke at 12.30 a.m. waiting for the weather to clear. Around 3:30 a.m., the weather cleared up a bit and we finally left camp at 4:30 a.m.
We could walk only fifteen minutes before a blizzard hit us and visibility went down to almost zero. We returned to camp to wait for another window of better weather. At 07:30 a.m., we made another attempt but were forced to retreat again. Finally at around 11:00 a.m. we began our summit march.
It took us two hours to reach the previous day’s high point. From there we turned left towards the summit of Jupkia. The sky was overcast with minimum visibility. But we started climbing the southeast face of Jupkia. We continued through a blizzard, negotiating many crevasses on this face of the peak. The gradient of the face we were climbing was around 75°, which eventually increased to 85°. We were roped up and finally arrived at the 6279 m summit at 4:50 p.m.
Due to bad weather, white-out, and continuous blizzard, nothing was visible from the summit. A strong wind was also blowing from the direction of the Borasu pass at our west, forming a little cornice at the summit. This cornice can be seen in one of the summit photos (the photo with the Indian flag). We spent no more than ten minutes as it was quite late, and we were tired from constantly fighting the blizzard all the way up. Our fingertips and faces had gone numb. We took a few photographs on the summit and started our descent. We were happy as all four members of our summit party had successfully summited Jupkia.
By the time we arrived at the bergschrund on our way down, it was dark. We were roped up throughout the descent and crossed the ice fields and walls carefully, avoiding the devious hidden crevasses. We reached the summit camp around 7:30 p.m.
The next morning, we descended to base camp and our eagerly waiting teammates. We celebrated the successful climb, a carefully nurtured wish of almost 15 years.
The summit with the cornice formed due to heavy wind (Nagaraja Pai)
In 2002, members of Climbers’ Circle, a mountaineering club in Kolkata, crossed the Borasu pass via a relatively unknown route. While crossing the pass, they noticed a peak to the east of the Borasu pass, which was later identified as Jupkia, 6279 m. Since then, the peak was always in the wish list of the members of the club. Finally, in August 2017, a team climbed the mountain successfully.
Abhishek Das is a mountaineer with extensive knowledge in the field of adventure sport and a decade of active experience. He has participated in over twenty mountaineering expeditions and high-altitude treks in India and in Europe. He has also worked as instructor at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. He was the leader of the expedition to Jupkia, the account of which is reported in this article.
Exit from Spiti to Lahaul
I was keen on understanding why Spitians did not enter these gorges. I was also interested in whether an accessible route could be established from Spiti to Ladakh/Lahaul.
In September 1846, Captain Alexander Cunningham was walking through the right bank of the Yunum nala (then called Gar Zha’i Chu) and noticed a path running up along with the Tsarap chu towards the south. He guessed that this path could be a route for the wool smugglers as he heard about a few routes used by the traders to avoid the taxes imposed by the King of Kashmir or the local Nono. He asked his local porters about it. They firmly denied, saying, “Sahib, this trail does not go far”. But Cunningham took that denial, perhaps, as proof.
It was a part of the survey of the First Boundary Commission 1846. Cunningham wrote that Vans Agnew and he followed William Moorcroft’s account of Ladakh and they had very little information at that time about Spiti until W. C. Hay, Assistant Commissioner, Kullu, prepared a comprehensive report in 1850. But, at that time, the British were very eager to grab the business of wool and wool products from the states of Kullu and Kashmir.
The second reference comes from the writings of Hay, where he mentioned all the passes and the connectors to Spiti. In his report, six connectors with the Kinnaur and Kullu states and three connectors with the Lahaul and the Ladakh were mentioned. Though he mentioned Takling la, a difficult connector used to save the tax burden, he did not mention the Yanzi Dewan col by name, a more difficult and a more direct route to west Tibet. But Hay mentioned the ‘Chumurti’ connector in which ‘Put Put Lamu’ is a very high pass. Are Chumurti, as mentioned in his report, and today’s ‘Chumur’ one and the same? Chumur was always a controversial place and is easily connected to Tibet following the path along the Pare chu. He wrote: the trek starts from ‘Hauling’ (‘Harling’?). If it is so, then it can be assumed that the Chumurti connector is today’s Yanzi Diwan col.
Then, Stoliczka explored the Tsarap chu gorge as part of the geological survey in 1865 and opened the Pangpo la route and Lt. Col. C. H. Stockly entered in the Tsarap chu gorge and moved up to the Umnang nala in 1931 with an exploration team with members from different disciplines.
But, prior to that, in 1873, the Atlas Sheet 46 was published and that was later changed to 52L by the SOI with more corrections and information w.r.t. to this area.
I became interested in the history of the period 1841-42, when the Dogra General Jorawar Singh and his army plundered Spiti, considering it as a part of Ladakh state. He posted Rahim Khan and Gulam Khan to keep control over Spiti and to continue oppression on the Spitians. During the days of war, the Spitians fled to the difficult-to-penetrate river gorges in the apparently peaceful valleys in order to save themselves. They searched for the accessible connectors to move inside the Bushair state or even Kullu for a while until the winter comes. In some river gorges, the Spitians were able to move inside but, in case of most of the gorges, they could not. I was keen on understanding why Spitians did not enter these gorges. I was also interested in whether an accessible route could be established from Spiti to Ladakh/ Lahaul.
Moving through Tanmu glacier
Riloser glacier between peak 5975 m and 5925 m
Since there are no prominent peaks in the north Spiti, there were no mountaineering expedition accounts available. The peaks are rocky with an average height of below 6000 m but need a very high level of climbing expertise. Therefore mountaineering activity in the area is scarce. I had to depend on satellite maps to find the probable routes.
Hay wrote of a connector from Losar to Barlacha la, crossing a place named ‘Takpokongyah’. One option was to start at Takcha because there was a possibility to cross over though it would be a tough route for regular people. So, there could be a trail between the Barlacha la and the Kunzum ghati via the Chandra tal. But based on the map, there seemed to be an easier route from the Kiyato village to the north.
Two rivers flowing from the north met the Spiti river between Kiyato and Hansa villages. The major river is the Tanmu nala. This stream has brought water which is used for cultivation in the Kiyato. Limestone and agriculture form the base of the economy in Kiyato.
Sandeep Thakurta, Ranadhir Roy, Kabindranath Banerjee, Bhaskardeb Mukherjee and Debasish Bardhan reached Kiyato—32*26’35.32”N / 77*53’26.38” E (3860 m) at the end of May 2019.
Our first task was to meet older people for information. Luckily, I knew some as I had stayed there for a few days in 2012. We met Rinju Dawa, a retired head master who had experience of working with survey teams. He knew about Takling la, a closer pass to cross over to Ladakh. He observed that the gorge was narrow and difficult to access.
On leaving the village, we walked along an irrigational drain for two km. As we expected the the gorge to be narrow with overhangs we were technically prepared to negotiate these phases. But we found a huge amount of snow deposition over the river, due to late snowfall in the winter and the cloud burst last March. The snow had not melted at all! It was packed and hard and bliss for us. Even at the overhangs, snow deposition was four metres so we could cross those sections easily. Four hours later, we reached a place where a tributary from the east met the Tanmu nala — we had covered over seven kms. At about 4:00 pm, at the height of 4400 m, we camped along the Tanmu nala.
The area is shallow and a pocket of less oxygen. In the evening, three porters became ill, one of them showed signs of hysteria. We called for a rest day for acclimatization.
Glacial pool of Riloser glacier with 5975 m behind it
We moved forward along the Tanmu nala. The river gorge was a narrow gully full of packed snow. After two km, the Tanmu nala bent at a right angle towards the east. Another prominent stream from the north met the nala here. It became difficult for us to locate the main nala. We took the northern flow. We wished to observe the Riloser glacier and to cross over the junction so we had to divert. A gradual slope of moraine came down from an unnamed peak (5802 m) in the north and to our west there was a 5975 m peak and its glacier in a parabolic pattern. We left the dried stream gorge and moved along the gradual lateral moraine zone. In the afternoon, we could establish our second camp just beneath a rocky wall of 100 ft. Water was scarce.
Next day a two-hour walk brought us to the glacier. Then we found a glacial pool and serac in the west and many humps over the glacier in the north. At around 3:00 p.m., blizzards compelled us to make a camp over the snow field. I assumed the col over the watershed was not far away because the icefall seemed close.
We took the route along the east wall to avoid icefalls. An hour later we were stopped by an ice wall. Members were ready to access the wall by fixing ropes but we found an icy gradient in the north-west which was easier. We moved together that way. Though the gradient of the glacier was full of crevasses and filled with packed snow, we found an ice bridge over a big crevasse and we reached atop the Tanmu watershed by 12 noon. This was the Tanmu col—coordinates—32* 32’ 7.764” N / 77* 51’ 12,981” E . (5445 m)—a connector between Spiti and Lahaul (east)—which had never been crossed before.
There was a vast snowfield before us. On the eastern side, there were under 6000 m peaks on the Soska Dhar. In the north-east, was peak 5925 m and on the west peak 5975 m. The col lay between these. The Riloser glacier was on the north-western side. Both peaks were accessible from here.
We spent 30 minutes on the Col. Crossing the snow field we started to go down to the Riloser glacier hurriedly because the weather became vulnerable in the afternoon.
In an hour, we reached the snout of the glacier with several glacial pools. The snow-covered area made it an easy walk.
Next day, we moved along the Riloser nala for about seven km reaching the confluence of the Riloser nala and the Lunger nala. Strong winds blew through the wide river gorge. Here there was no snow on the river bed.
The Lunger nala is wide with Trans-Himalayan features. The water is little although snowfall was heavy last winter.
Every contributory stream from east and west was dry. Everyone was exhausted and dehydrated. After moving for about eight km, we were at the confluence of the Malung nala and the Lunger nala where A. H. Stockly had reached in 1931. We planned to move upward and cross the Malung glacier to enter the Rupsu region. This area is unexplored. But the porters were not ready to accompany us. So, we turned to the north. At 3:00 pm, we found a trickle from Malung nala and camped.
Stockly had referred to this river as Malung but the SOI maps and Capt. Cunningham have called it Tsarap chu. We concluded that the main river is the Malung nala, enriched by the waters of the Lunger nala, Pangpo nala, Umnang nala and Lamaguru nala, which in turn is christened Tsarap Chu when it meets Lingti nala at Sarchu.
In this gorge, fossils of Ammonites and Brachiopods are easily available. We did not encounter animals except fox and mountain goats at a distance. But there was fish everywhere in the stagnant water patches. Three days of walk led us to Sarchu.
The people in Sarchu’s seasonal hamlet were surprised to see us. The Baralacha had not opened so cars could not move toward Leh or Manali. We described our journey from Kiyato.
Eroded rocks—we named this Henry Moore Park
We could finally appreciate Capt. Cunningham’s brilliant ideas and his understanding of the geography of the area and the possibility of a connector between Ladakh and Spiti.
Cunningham, A.: 1848 Trip through Kulu and Lahul to Chu Mureri Lake in Ladak
Hay, W.C.: 1851 Report on the Valley of Spiti
Kapadia, H.: His book ‘Spiti’
Himalayan Travel group, Live History (Facebook page)
In the true spirit of exploration Debashish and his team after much desk research and deduction of names and coordinates, set out to find the connector between Spiti and Ladakh.
Photos – Sandeep Thakurta