Kazuya Hiraide and Kenro Nakajima1
At 04:00 am on 2 July, we departed under a skyful of stars. There were no difficult pushes to the summit ridge. We silently struggled in the snow, climbing a break of cornices to the ridge. Snow conditions were good because of the winds blowing from the west. Suddenly Hunza came into sight below the sheer drop of the ridge.
Rakaposhi is a mountain of the Karakoram range in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. It is situated in the middle of the Nagar and Bagrote valleys and Danyor, approximately 100 km north of the capital city Gilgit. Rakaposhi means ’snow covered’ in the local language. Rakaposhi is also known as Dumani (Mother of Mist or Mother of Clouds). It is ranked 27th highest in the world.
The first successful recorded ascent was in 1958 by Mike Banks and Tom Patey, members of a British-Pakistani expedition, via the Southwest Spur/Ridge route. Both of them suffered minor frostbite during the ascent to the summit on June 25. Another climber slipped and fell on the descent and died during the night.
Rakaposhi is notable for its exceptional rise over the land. On the north, it rises 5900m only 11.2 kmsaway from the Hunza-Nagar river. There are views of Rakaposhi from the Karakoram Highway on the route through Nagar.
The closest view of the mountaincalled ‘Zero Point of Rakaposhi’ is at the tourist town of Ghulmat (located in the Nagar valley). Rakaposhi is the only mountain in the world which rises straight from beautifully cultivated fields to the height of 7787m. From many places this wonderful spectacle can be viewed right from the base to the top.
Camp 1 to Camp 2
Previous Climbing Routes
The route of the climb
Our first objective was Tirich Mir Main, 7708m. We awaitedpermission at Chitral, but they did not grant the permit this year. Then we sought an alternative and changed our course to the south side of Rakaposhi, which is reputed to be a beautiful peak seen from Hunza. Hunza is like a second home for Hiraide because of his frequent visits to the area and it is his lifework to climb the peaks seen from Hunza.
While waiting for the permit, we entered the south side for a reconnaissance. Danyore valley is close to Gilgit, only 40 minutes to the road head. During summer, villagers come to pastures with goats, cows and yaks. It is an easy walk across the pasture. The distance is less than 20km from the pasture to the end (as low as 3660m) of the right bank of Sulgin glacier. It is like a polo ground. Woods are abundant and there is a water stream. We setup BC here as load ferry by animals becomes difficult from this point. The projected climbing route can be seen from BC, but drawing a climbing route on the south side is not encouraging as there are many treacherous seracs in the upper part of the south side and therefore viable routes extremely limited. We observed four lines but there seemed only one viable route. We tentatively returned to Gilgit, Meanwhile we waited for news on the permit to Tirich Mir for two nights, but there was no progress and to our regret our agent told us that there was an announcement of the authorities that the permit would not be granted this year. We resigned the first objective and headed to Rakaposhi. We called back our guides who were on stand-by in Chitral. With necessary supplies we returned to Rakaposhi on 16June 2020. We had lost ten days.
The weather was rather stable while we were waiting at Gilgit. Three days later, rain and snow continued for a week. To prepare ourselves, we ascended for acclimatization and reconnoitered for three days. Though the icefall was an uncomfortable labyrinth, it was not unpassable. We stayed at 4500m and 5900m for one night each and returned from 6100m to BC. We could confirm a route, but acclimatization was not enough. We prayed for good weather.
From the day when we returned to BC, rain and sleet continued for six days. The next day was fine but the wall was glued with snow causing frequent avalanches. The weather forecast told us that 2-3 days would be cloudy, then bad weather and then it would be fine. We should have passed through the lower part more exposed to danger of avalanches and availed ourselves of a narrow chance to reach the summit in fine weather.
After one day’s rest awaiting good weather, we departed in cloudy weather. We left behind rock climbing gear but carried foods and fuels for seven days. These were very heavy on our shoulders. The icefall after a week was full of traces of avalanches and collapsed seracs. We passed through the labyrinth, detoured a rock wall from the right then reached snow ridge. Cutting out a ridge at a col after following a knife edge we pitched a tent of C1 at 5200m. As it was the same route we had taken for acclimatization, we could move very fast. We gained 1500m.
On 28 June we passed through the side of seracs to reach a snow ridge and snow wall. Previous traces were swept away. We struggled with fresh snow, sometimes with no loads. We managed to gain 1000m and pitched C2 at 6200m. On 29June we at last reached the south-east ridge. We ascended belaying with ice screws on the ice wall just beneath the southeast ridge. A panorama of the northeast side suddenly came into sight when we stood on the southeast ridge. We had views of Diran and KunyanChhis. The summit seemed just in front of our eyes. But the altimeter was honest. Snow on the ridge was not crusted but loose, contrary to expectation. We had to struggle with soft snow on the southeast ridge too. We ascended 600m and dug snow to pitch a tent for C3 on the ridge. It snowed on 30June and 1July. We stayed in the camp.
Camp 1 to Camp 2
Camp 2 to Camp 3
As we felt that the good weather would not continue, we decided this would be the final camp before the summit which was 1000m away.
Camp 3 before summit attempt
At 04:00am on 2July, we departed under a skyful of stars. There were no difficult pushes to the summit ridge. We silently struggled in the snow, climbing a break of cornices to the ridge. Snow conditions were good because of the winds blowing from the west. Suddenly Hunza came into sight below the sheer drop of the ridge.
We stood atop at 12:00 noon. We were overwhelmed by the 360°panorama. Shispare that we had climbed in the previous year attracted our attention. Magnificent K2 was seen on the far horizon. We descended by the same route. Staying overnight at C3,we returned to BC the following day. Overall there was not much technical difficulty, but the vertical height from the BC to the summit was over 4000m and the weather was unstable.
On the summit
One of the most outstanding mountains in the Karakoram is Rakaposhi, 7787 m. The south side of the mountain - leading to the crest of the southeast ridge had been reconnoitered but a feasible route had not been found so it remained untouched. From 3660m in unstable weather, Kazuya Hiraide and Kenro Nakajima climbed the south face over three days, to reach C3 at 6800m on the southeast ridge. After two days waiting for clear weather, they climbed to the summit and back in one long day and reached base camp the next day. 27 June - 3 July 2020 was the round trip from BC. They were one of four teams awarded the Piolet D’Or 2020.The statement reads “Although the route does not feature the high technical difficulties of the three other awarded ascents, its huge length, and the commitment and style of Hiraide and Nakajima's determined ascent on a rarely-climbed mountain, makes it of equal merit for a 2020 Piolet d'Or.”
Kazuya Hiraide is a Japanese ski mountaineer, Alpine climber, and professional mountain cameraman.
Hiraide became a serious mountain climber after joining a mountaineering club at his university. In 2001, he reached the eastern summit of Kula Kangri (7381 m) in Tibet. His list of accomplishments includes first ascents, reaching summits without oxygen and skiing from mountain peaks. In 2009, he scaled the previously unclimbed southeastern wall of Kamet (7756 m) and with partner Kei Taniguchi, became the first Japanese to receive the 17th Piolet d’Or. With his partner Kenro Nakajima he also won a Piolet d'Or for his first ascent on Shispare in 2017 and now for Rakaposhi.
Rudra Prasad Halder
At first it seemed like a burner problem but later I realized that Paramount Company's gas cylinders had been refilled in Kathmandu with bad quality gas. The boat that was our expedition, was about to sink because of an unscrupulous trader in Thamel Bazaar.
On 8 February 2021, the car stopped and dropped us one kilometre before the Jagatsukh dam. Knee-deep snow welcomed us. We proceeded along the road on the right side of Jagatsukh nala from the dam; we were struggling and the plight of our six Nepali porters was even more tragic. The snow was soon waist deep and I was afraid that the porters would call it off anytime. This fear haunted me until we reached base camp on 12 February. The three-day trek to base camp had taken five days. By then a pack of snow fox started following us for food, proving quite annoying. But later they would play a vital role in the expedition. The sole of my La Sportiva climbing shoe also came off as we reached base camp, but I somehow managed with another pair from the porters. The porters left us on the 13th and then the three of us started route finding and load ferrying.
Deo Tibba from base camp
Camp 1 on the ridge between Dhuangan col and Norbu
The snow foxes became a nuisance as they regularly took our food and even drilled holes in our tents, rucksack and food packs. There was no opportunity to rest even for a day. The news was that the weather would start deteriorating from 18/19. A climb about 3-4 kms from the base camp would take us to Dhuangan col (5050 m) wall in the middle of two mountains on either side of the wall - Deo Tibba (6001 m) on the left and Norbu (5226 m) on the right. We studied the path of Dhuangan col well and left it out as it was more avalanche prone. We chose the steeper walls of Norbu. I took the first rest of the climb on the 16th after fixing rope halfway through the 60 to 70 degree wall. Our fixed rope was only about 160 m. So I put it in the middle of the wall to save time. The next morning the weather was bad so we started late. It took us longer as the first part of the climb was without fixed rope. It was half past five in the afternoon when we reached the top of the fixed rope. Junior and I sat on the snake-like ridge and continued to belay Fursemba.He was struggling as he was constantly slipping. On his third attempt he could reach the ridge top. Darkness and cold prevailed. At 2:00 am we all reached camp 1 at the top of the wall. Somehow we pitched tent on a dangerous shelf.
Icefield after descending from camp 1
The next day I went down to a snowfield behind the wall and saw another wall of 200 m, one kilometre to the left. That's when a terrible blizzard began. The wind continued to blow at a speed of 50/60 km. We climbed the wall roped up and everybody took turns to open the route. We managed to pitch a tent at 5200 m in these conditions. We realized that our high altitude gas malfunctioned. At first it seemed like a burner problem but later I realized that Paramount Company's gas cylinders had been refilled in Kathmandu with bad quality gas. The boat that was our expedition, was about to sink because of an unscrupulous trader in Thamel Bazaar. When we saw the Milky Way that night, we were very upset. We wanted to bite off our hands for not being able to attempt the summit in such beautiful weather. Without the gas burner there was no water. We had only one litre of water between three of us.
After spending the night with that amount of water only we decided to go to base camp the next day. We had decided to make a second attempt. We would burn gas in the lower camps and bring a kerosene stove for higher camps. We would climb a 250 m wall and climb the rest by roping up and return to this camp. We put the food under three feet of ice, left the camera, utensils, sleeping bag in the tent, pulled the tent chain and reached the base camp the next day totally dehydrated at 10:00 pm.
We made an intermediate camp under the wall of Dhuangan col after taking a rest day on 20th till noon on 21st. The next day we reached Camp 2 i.e. summit camp and what we saw shattered us. The pack of snow fox had stolen all the food. Those wise foxes had left behind two packets of ready-to-eat rice and two packets of dal makhani, probably for our survival. Someone from the club asked us, “What’s for dinner today?” Junior replied, “Water and just water”.
What next? There was no option but to come down.
A three-man self-supported team of Rudra Prasad Halder, Rudra Chakraborty (Junior) and Fursemba made a winter attempt on Deo Tibba which was organized by Sonarpur Arohi Club in West Bengal.
Rudra Prasad Haldar started high altitude mountaineering in 1999. He trained at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. Since then he has participated in over 20 expeditions, including Panchchuli, Papsura, Trishul, Mamostang Kangri, Nun and Everest. He is interested in exploration and has visited remote areas where modern technology has not reached.
With the goal of finding a link between Obra and Baspa valley via DevkirGhati, we left Sankri on 27th morning and a wearisome two-hour drive led us to a place near Jakhol, named Baincha (2037 m) which was the confluence of Supin flowing from north and Obra gad flowing from east.
The prime objective of this exploration was to cross over Devkir Ghati and to establish a new feasible route to enterBaspa valley of Kinnaur (Himachal Pradesh) from Obravalley, WesternGarhwal (Uttarakhand).
Peaks around Obra valley and previous ascents:
In May-June 2006, a team comprising Gerry and Louise Wilson, Harish Kapadia, Suman Dubey, Raja Upadhyay and Vinay Hegde entered the Obra valley to Climb Ranglana(5554m). But adverse weather didn't permit them to do so. Later they climbed Dhoduka Guncha(5135m)1
In Sept-Oct 2008 a team comprising Derek Buckle, Toto Gronlund, Martin Scott etc climbed a peak of 5165 m in the valley and named it Lammergeyer Peak2.
In May-June 2010, a team Cyrus Shroff(leader), Sanjay Khatau, Prakash Samant, Vinay Hegde attempted Ranglana(5554m) which remained elusive. They also attempted Dhodu, but they had to retreat 50 m before the summit due to adverse weather3.
In Sept-Oct 2010 a team of five members from Imperial College of London led by Jonathan Phillips (AlpineClub,UK) successfully climbed three peaks in the valley. They climbed P-5480, P-5877 (locally named Dauru and highest peak of the valley) and Ranglana (5554 m)4. The two high peaks at the head of the Devkir glacier viz. P 5849 and P5760 are yet to be climbed.
Previous attempt of Devkir Ghati
Devkir Ghati was previously attempted by veteran Bengali mountaineer and eminent author Banbhusan Nayak in August 1999 and September 2000. But despite his relentless effort, the ghati remained untouched. He had to retreat just before the Devkir glacier in Aug 1999. During his return, in adverse weather, he crossed a depression beside Andurko(5195m) and descended to Maninda valley and thus concluded his journey through Har-ki-Doon.
Devkir Ghati (5292 m; Coordinates--N31°14.881’, E078°26.498' as real time read by GPS device) is located between P-5849m and P-5760m, on the head of the Devkir glacier in the Upper Obravalley of Western Garhwal on Devkirdhar(ridge) along the Dhauladhar mountain range.
The Journey begins
With the goal of finding a link between Obra and Baspa valley via Devkir Ghati,we left Sankri on 27th morning and a wearisome two-hour drive led us to a place near Jakhol, named Baincha(2037m) which was the confluence of Supin flowing from north and Obra gad flowing from east. The trek started towards east keeping Obra gad on the right. Soon we crossed a concrete bridge over Obra gad and went through a less dense forest which led us to the river bed on a downward trail. We had to cross another concrete bridge andthis way we returned to the right side of Obra gad. The entire 3.5 km trail on the first day was through less dense forest and by afternoon, we reached Obra temple (2310 m) and camped there for the day. On 28th morning we went along a well-marked forest trail chiefly of Pine and later Rhododendron though devoid of flowers. A long approach through the forest made us mark our camp as Jungle camp(6.24 km, 3126 m).
We left Jungle camp at 8:30 am on the 29th.The tree line gradually changed to hay fields on a switchback route. After a couple of hours, we could see the majestic beauty of Ranglana(5554m). Near Bhawakthatch, the river bed was broader but quite dry. Keeping a large and almost vertical rock face on our left, we came down beyond Bhawakthatch(6.69km, 3931m) after eight hours of walking and called it a day. On 30th morning we started our trek through yellow hay fields on an upward trail. Within half an hour, we stepped on Devkir bugiyal (4049 m), which is a vast meadow full of yellow grass surrounded by majestic peaks like Andurko (5195 m), Ranglana (5554 m), Dhodu (5418 m), DhudukaGuncha (5135 m), Dauru (P-5877) etc. While walking through the meadow, on our left, we could see a huge cave in which Someswar Mahadev is worshipped. From there we started moving towards a long moraine ridge which extended from north east to south west and ended near Devkir glacier.
It took almost two hours to reach the top of the ridge from its base and the initial altitude of which had been measured as 4334 m. The ridge was a little over 3km in a crescent shaped pattern. The initial and the later part of the ridge were decently wide, but the middle of the ridge was literally knife edged.
Some sections of the ridge were already broken. In some parts we observed large quantities of dried Bramhakamals. As we moved on, we had a glimpse of our targeted depression on the upper part of Devkir glacier along with a clear view of P-5760 on our right. We also observed few glacial tarns and the glacier snout. After trudging for two hours, we descended to reach a little ahead of Kimdarthatch in 6.30hours (4388m, 3 km from our previous camp), a very small grassy field with stream nearby. While coming down to Kimdarthatch, we observed clear and fresh footprints of an animal, possibly a large cat kind of species.
On day 5, we left Kimdarthatch at 9:00 am. We started moving towards the head of the lateral moraine zone. Majestic Ranglana was standing behind us, upright. We moved northeast keeping the previous day's moraine ridge on our right. After ascending 2kms from our camp, we came up to the end of the moraine ridge from where we started descending to the opposite side i.e. to the right side of the ridge and reached the moraine zone full of glacial tables. From there, our targeted depression through Devkir glacier was entirely visible along with P 5760 m (on our right) and P 5849 m (on our left). We arrived at the head of the moraine zone (three km from previous camp, 4.30 hrs), where we camped at 4771 m.
On 1st Nov 2020, we left moraine camp at 9:30 am under a clear bright sky. A trek through the lateral moraine for couple of hours, led us to the lower part of the crevassed Devkir glacier.
Two coils of climbing rope had been fixed for this section. We started jummaring through the steep gradient of Devkir glacier till we reached a flat part. That section was highly crevassed. We roped up and started moving in a zigzag manner to avoid crevasses enroute.In four hours we reached at a comparatively safer section of the glacier, where we camped at an altitude of 5011 m.
There was a rock face nearby—we had to take that route to reach at the head of the glacier. There was no other option. We had to avoid the middle part as it was crevassed with dangerous ice seracs. It was a snowy evening, making almost one foot snow deposition around the tent. On 2nd Nov, we left glacier camp at 8:15 am. Ranglana was behind us along with its subsidiary peaks and ahead we could see our route—a narrow space between two rock faces. The approach route was not so crevassed and we reached there within an hour. But near the zone at the base of the rock face, we had to avoid a few wide crevasses with difficulty.
Once we entered the narrow space between two adjacent rock faces, we took the face of left side rock wall which was more than 20 m with loose rock along a sharp gradient. We jummared to the top in an hour. We had to continue negotiating the zone, devoid of snow but full of loose rock. After100m we stopped to navigate towards our aimed depression. We stepped into the glacier on our left once again to get into its upper part. The weather was getting worse. Snowfall was accompanied by freezing winds. We had to move ahead. We roped up and stepped into the glacier.
Here also we encountered crevasses. We reached a small snowfield and after almost an hour from that zone of loose rocks, we stepped on Devkir Ghati, 5292 m; Coordinates--N31°14.881', E078°26.498' as real time read by GPS device. The weather worsened. Hence, we were compelled to camp on the Ghati itself beside the foothill of P5849.
Near the glacier camp
The next day morning dawned a bright and clear sky. P 5760 and P5849 were in SE and NW direction respectively. I stood on the DevkirD har and observed that that the wall of the ridge vertically jumps to almost 300 m down to Jupkia glacier bed in the northeastern section. I could also observe the lofty peaks of Baspa valley region of Kinnaur along with the high moraine ridge extended from SW to north along which we were to move towards Chitkul. This part of Dhauladhar, named as Devkir Dhar acts as the Baspa-Obra water divider. The peaks of the Obra valley region on the south western section of the Devkir Ghati were clearly visible. A highly corniced pinnacle of P 5760 was observed on the extended ridge.
It was 3rd Nov. and we were to descend to Jupkia glacier bed. We had a delayed start. After traversing few metres down towards NE, we found a stance and rappelled around 10 m or so. Then we traversed a few metres again and found another stance from where werappelled40 m along an almost vertical face.
After two more rounds of rappelling, we found ourselves in front of a cave around 5150 m, on the precarious icy slope. From here, the Jupkia glacier appeared to be closer along with a long extended crescent shaped bergschrund, which encircled the entire Jupkia glacier region and was to the main feature at the entrance of the Jupkia glacier. In worsening weather, we confined ourselves to a cave which we named Devkir cave.
Next day morning at 11:00 am, we left Devkir cave and moved down the same slope as the previous day. We had to rappel along slopes of high snow deposition and stopped just before the bergschrund. It was a wider opening than we had imagined. There we found a narrow link which acted like an ice bridge between the two sides of bergschrund, over which we crossed cautiously to finally reach Jupkia glacier bed.
We roped up and started along the crevassed Jupkia glacier straight to the NE. After an hour or so, we crossed the glacier (which was no more than 500 m)and entered the lateral moraine turning towards east. A 3.5-hour trek through the moraine zone led us to Jupkia glacier moraine camp at 4:45 pm at an altitude of 4567m. The distance from Devkir Ghati to Jupkia glacier moraine camp was 11.7 km.
On 5th Nov, we departed moraine camp for Jairi; after a trek through the vast moraine zone, keeping Jupkia nala on our left, we arrived at Jairiin seven hours and camped beside Jupkia nala.
6th Nov was the 11th and final day of our trek. Through ridges and river beds we came to Baspa river. A trek along the true left of the Baspa river bank, led us to an iron bridge. Leaving an abandoned ITBP camp behind, we crossed the bridge and stepped on to Ranikanda from where we boarded a goods truck to Chitkul.
Moraine camp and the depression on the upper part of the glacier
Devkir Ghati near the base of P 5849 (visible behind the photograph). The far away peaks from L to R - Andurko (5195), Ranglana (5554 m), Dhodu (5418 m), Dhudu ka Guncha (5135 m)
The team on the Ghati. From L to R - Naveen Chowdhury, Debasish Acharyya, Binoy Das
Map of the route
A team consisting of DebasishAcharyya, Leader;Naveen Chowdhury, Dy. Ldr;Binoy Das and supported by Denadrap Sherpa, Naresh Kumar, Lyber, Vijender and Jaybir made the first crossing of DevkirGhati, finding a connection between Obra valley in Uttarakhand and Baspa valley in Himachal Pradesh.
Debasish Acharyya has been walking in the Himalaya for last twelve years. He presently works in the Women and Child Development & Social Welfare Dept., Govt of WB. His works are published in popular travel and adventures magazines of Bengal.
Col Sarfraz Singh
As the team got closer to the summit, the weather cleared, offering a stunning view of Kangto massif with Chomo Tso to the east and Gorichen to its west.
The Kangto massif is a group of seven peaks which form part of the Eastern Himalayan ranges. The peaks are located to the east of Gorichen and majestic peaks like Chomo, NyegiKangstang are to their west. No official records of attempts on the Kangto massif exist in the history of mountaineering. Any venture would demand a sustainable build-up of logistics and a physically tough and technically qualified team.
The National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (NIMAS) Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh planned an expedition to Kangto VI, 6062 m, during 02-Sep to 05-Oct 2019 with 40 climbers including 20 support members. Theexpedition was taken up under the leadership of Col Sarfraz Singh. The expedition also planned to explore possibilities on the Kangto main (7060 m).
The team got together at NIMAS on30 August to train, plan routes, get medical checks and pack. Multiple air sorties were planned for reconnaissance of the massif; however due to constant bad weather only a single sortie could materialize which also returned short of Chokarsam. On the 2nd, the team departed for Senge Transit Camp and started with its first stage acclimatisation routine. Over the next three days the team moved from Senge Transit Camp to Jang bridge; the first day they trekked a distance of 22 km to reach New Mellingwhich is located at an altitudeof 9000 ft. The team had training and practice activities at this camp. On 07 Sep the team reached Magoand on 08 Sep team carried out acclimatisation walk to Chuna post which is located at an altitude of 13400 ft. On 09 Sep the team did a load ferry to Jethang valley which is approx 15 km from Mago. On 12 Sep the team carried loads from Jethang to Merathang.
The team was divided into three sub teams. Team 1 along with team leader left early from Merathang to carry out reconnaissance of the camp location ahead of Chokarsam, Team 2 and 3 carried loads to establish camp at ChokarTso). The load ferry teams returned to Merathangby evening.
Mt Chokar Tso
View of Mt Kangto massif from alpha camp
After taking a day to make mule and manpack loads, issue of rations etc. Team1 shifted to Camp-1 and remaining teams carried out load ferry to ChokarTso.The team leader gave a final briefing to the entire team and location of the next camp was earmarked by Team 1—the camp was named as Glacial Lake camp (GLC).The next camp was named Alpha. Finally on 25thTeam1 occupied the summit campand carried out ropes fixing for around 300 muntil bad weather and poor visibility forced them to return to summit camp.
The next day despite poor visibility with heavy winds Team1 started fixing rope till the summit. As the team got closer to the summit, the weather cleared, offering a stunning view of Kangto massif with Chomo Tso to the east and Gorichen to its west. At around 1:00 pm, Director NIMAS, Col Sarfraz Singh along with eight members became the first team to successfully accomplish the first ascent of Kangto VI. On the 27th, Team 2 comprising of 11 members reached the summit and the following day another 11 members succeeded. They returned triumphant to Dirang on 5 October.
Team 1 on summit of Kangto VI (6062 m)
First ascent of Kangto VI,6062 m by National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports has broadened the scope of mountaineers and mountaineering in the Eastern Himalaya, specifically in the unexplored Kangto range. It is hoped that this successful ascent will go a long way in enticing enthusiastic mountaineers, naturalists, biologists and nature lovers to explore it further.
Colonel Sarfraz Singh is the director of the National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (NIMAS) in Arunachal Pradesh, winner of Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award. Colonel Sarfraz led a mission of an eight-member team to the summit of the world’s highest peak — Mount Everest. He is a skydiver, a combat free faller, rafting specialist, an avid cyclist. He is the son of Olympian Col Balbir Singh Kular.
At only about 50 cm wide, and of a similar depth, the summit was an exciting place to be, especially with a large void beneath our feet, but we were very pleased to have completed a first ascent of an unnamed 6 000 m peak by an excellent AD- route.
This article is a personal account written following my first opportunity to explore and climb in Tibet during July/August 1999. Subsequently I have returned four more times; in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005, until restrictions made it difficult for mountaineers to visit the more remote parts of the country.
In 1999 I knew little about Tibet other than that it was a mountainous country with an average altitude exceeding 4000 m, had many monasteries, had a strong Buddhist tradition and was now dominated by the Chinese. Thus, the chance to explore some less frequented parts of Tibet, and to attempt one or more virgin peaks above 6000 m was too much of a temptation, despite the almost prohibitive cost and the rather early period of travel. Organized by John Town, who I had met in Georgia the previous year, the plan was for our party of six to fly via Kathmandu to Lhasa. From Lhasa we would travel by road to the Nyenchen Tanglha (a.k.a. Nyainqentanglha) range.
The Nyenchen Tanglha had recently been brought to the attention of mountaineers following Chris Bonington’s exploratory visit to Sepu Kangri (6956 m) in 1996 and his two subsequent unsuccessful attempts to summit in 1997 and 19981,2. The Nyenchen Tanglha forms a long arc just north of Lhasa and Sepu Kangri lies in the eastern part of the range. Our party, however, was to visit the western region close to its highest mountain, Jomo Kangri (a.k.a. Qungmo Kangri), a little over 7000 m high, and which, I was assured, would be in the monsoon rain shadow during July.
To begin with everything ran smoothly, except that our main freight, containing such essential items as the tents and climbing ropes, seemed to have trouble leaving the UK. In fact, despite having been ‘sent’ two weeks before we left the UK it was still not in Kathmandu when we arrived! Frantic telephone calls to the UK handlers eventually located the errant package which, despite being an enormous 150 lt, fluorescent yellow and weighing 60 kg, had been overlooked at Heathrow. Much to our relief, after visiting previously unheard of Middle Eastern venues, it eventually turned up the day before we were due to fly to Lhasa. The one-hour flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa must rank as one of the world’s best, since it takes a line initially parallel with the Himalayas before crossing to the east of Mount Everest. Many of the world’s highest mountains are on display; Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyo, Makalu and Kanchenjunga, to name but a few. The ominous looking monsoon clouds boiling up from the Indian Ocean were visible too!
John Town and Gary Hill low on Tangmonja's SW ridge
A strong Chinese military presence at Lhasa’s Gongga airport reminded us that this was not the Tibet of old, but apart from discouraging us from taking photographs they all appeared very friendly. Indeed, the young female soldiers were very attractive and even smiled! After being welcomed by the Tibetan Mountaineering Association and presented with traditional silk scarves (khatas), we were soon whisked away by coach for the 100 km trip to Lhasa itself, passing one of the major Buddhist shrines en route. At Lhasa the 3700 m altitude soon became apparent in the form of insistent headaches; a change from the explosive intestinal upsets so characteristic of Kathmandu but still unpleasant. Boring Chinese architecture now characterizes much of Lhasa, but fortunately the Potala Palace was left unscathed during the Cultural Revolution and many damaged monasteries have been substantially rebuilt. Like all other visitors before us, we visited the imposing Potala, which is now simply a museum with just a vestige of the thousands of monks that once inhabited the building. By contrast, the Jokang Temple—the most holy place in Tibet—and more especially the Drepung Monastery were still places of religious worship rather than state museums. The monks at both of the two working monasteries were extremely welcoming and typical of all others that we met in Tibet.
The large thermal pool at Yangpachen
After two days spent acclimatizing our next stop was Yangpachen (4300 m), the site of thermal springs and a geothermal power station some two hours north of Lhasa. Interestingly, our accommodation here was in the power station itself, but we did have the opportunity to laze in the enormous thermal pool while enjoying our first terrestrial glimpse of snow-capped mountains. Headaches still kept appearing at regular intervals, but at least I was better off than Gary who had just informed me that he now had severe gastric troubles to accompany his cold, altitude headache and athlete’s foot! From Yangpachen, the land cruisers came into their own since the road deteriorated somewhat.3 The scenery, however, was a magnificent distraction to the uncomfortable ride as grander and grander mountains gradually came into view. Eventually we stopped for our first sight of Tangmonga (6194 m), the first of three impressive unclimbed mountains that we planned to attempt, although this was a view of the SE face while we hoped to climb the SW ridge.4 Later we crossed a 5345 m pass before reaching our first camp site (5045 m) at the head of the Jomo Chu valley. More headaches, but after a few aspirins and some food these eventually subsided.
Soon after our arrival we were surrounded by many colourful and friendly Tibetan nomads, all curious and anxious to help. It seemed as though the whole of the local village had come out to visit and they provided numerous photographic opportunities that were certainly not wasted. That evening, John and I climbed the local peak (5345 m) for some additional acclimatization and also to get good views of the sun setting over Jomo Kangri. What an impressive mountain this is, it is no wonder that John and Hew Davies failed to climb it two years previously since it has no obvious line of weakness and the long summit ridge holds threateningly large cornices.5 We were later to hear major avalanches thundering down the east face, although the most obvious route from the south appeared to be objectively safe.
Yaks, that were to transport our equipment to base camp, arrived early the next day along with an assortment of local villagers. Loading these skittish animals was a skilled art, but after a number of upsets reminiscent of wild-west rodeos we were on our way up the Jomo Chu valley to camp beneath the east face of Jomo Kangri. There was excitement as the yaks continuously discharged our gear over the valley floor, and at one point we were concerned that some would be severely damaged, if not lost. Fortunately, our Sherpa Pemba Churi was as good at keeping rear guard as he was at providing us with varied and appetizing meals so everything eventually arrived intact. We were now able to see Tangmonga at close range, and more specifically the SE ridge that was our objective, although this was hidden when we reached base camp at 5030 m, about one km short of the Jomo glacier terminal moraine. More headaches now and they were more persistent, so clearly I had not yet fully acclimatized.
Local Tibetan ladies with their children near base camp
Next day was a rest day during which my headache finally vanished never to return – my blood pressure remained high nonetheless, whatever that meant. At base camp we set up the prayer flags, tested the loo and stuffed our faces with all manner of food. We also had visits from the locals. But now it was time to make a carry to our intended ABC on the ridge. A yak trail led up the moraine and soon became steeper as we ascended the rounded ridge proper. It was quite a relief to reach a depression at 5525 m which, with a little reconstruction work, would take three two-man tents. No sooner had we pitched the tents when torrential monsoon hail started and we dived for cover. Since we still had to descend to BC that day there was no escaping a thorough dousing, however. It rained/snowed/hailed all of the next day and this was to be the pattern for the next couple of weeks when we would get one, or perhaps two, good days interspersed with heavy mist and snow. Eventually though we colonized ABC and waited for a good spell.
Tangmonja’s SW ridge from Jomo Chu terminal moraine
Clear skies over Jomo Kangri from near ABC
Ric Wojtaszewski with Tangmonja 6194 m, in the background
We were self-catering now so meals were less adventurous than those that we were getting at BC – dehydrated meals may be convenient, but they never seem to be appetizing. The weather continued to be capricious, but we managed an equipment dump at the start Tangmonga’s SW ridge proper at around 5800 m and returned in poor weather. Poor visibility also heralded the start of the next day, although at lunchtime I managed to solo a peak on the southern end of Tanmonga’s SE ridge by way of its SW spur and snowy west flank. The previously unclimbed and unnamed summit at 5850 m was characterized by a large capping stone and was really just a high point on the ridge. Thunder and the approaching dark monsoon clouds from the SE caused me to curtail my planned northwards traverse of the rocky ridge to a true summit, and necessitated a cautious descent of the steep slope that I had climbed.
The next day was to be our summit attempt and leaving at 7.00 we were soon at the equipment stash and roped up ready to climb. The ridge at this point was fairly horizontal for about 500 m but because it was very notched and exceptionally loose, we were moving very slowly. Moreover, with poor weather closing in it was clear that we were unlikely to complete the return trip in the time available, and Gary demonstrated the major problem by heaving increasingly large, unstable blocks off the ridge. At 5920 m we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and agreed to retreat. At this point I learned that John had earlier taken a short fall when both hand and foot holds had simultaneously parted company with the ridge, so this decision was clearly sensible. It was a disappointment nevertheless, especially as we now had insufficient time to either explore alternative routes or to look at the other major mountains for which we had permits.
While three of the group descended to BC, Gary, John and myself were looking at an alternative peak on the SW ridge as a consolation prize and only had to wait a couple of days before we could attempt it. Initially we had planned to ascend the nearest peak by an obvious snow gully, but as we approached, an alternative route to the higher neighbouring mountain began to look more attractive – especially since it appeared to offer a more exciting ascent. Indeed, this is what it turned out to be. After traversing the boulder field below the south face of Tangmonga we entered the prominent right branch of a Y-shaped SW couloir leading to a peak with an anvil-shaped summit. At first the average angle of this couloir was about 40 degrees, but the appearance of small avalanches soon convinced us that we would be safer on the central spur at an angle of about 50 degrees. Just below the ridge the angle steepened even more and we were forced to traverse right to reach a notch in the ridge proper. At this point we were on rock, not solid, but rock nonetheless, and we roped up. Leading the way, I tested the first steep step on the rising traverse to the summit. Disconcertingly a rather large section fell into the void. Cautiously moving back, it was possible to use ice axes to ascend a short but steep wall to emerge on comparatively stable granite. Two rope lengths later and we were on the summit at 6025 m (N 29.93, E 90.09), which we were later to call Machag (Tibetan for blacksmith’s stone) in recognition of its unique anvil-shaped protuberance. At only about 50 cm wide, and of a similar depth, the summit was an exciting place to be, especially with a large void beneath our feet, but we were very pleased to have completed a first ascent of an unnamed 6000 m peak by an excellent AD- route. We had planned to traverse the ridge and descend by the snow ramp that we had seen earlier, but time was pressing and we had little option but to descend the way we had come. This was not without excitement, especially since the snow was now soft and covering unconsolidated boulders, but apart from John sustaining a twisted knee, we arrived safely back at ABC almost nine hours after having left it.
The next day we returned to BC from where we explored the right hand (true left) moraine of the Jomo glacier. It was on this exploratory trip that we identified a possible alternative route up Tangmonga via the glacier descending from the NW face, but there was no time left to give it a try. We also identified a route onto the Jomo glacier that provided access to the col between Kyama and Jomo Kangri, but again exploration of that as an access route to further untrodden peaks would have to await a subsequent trip.
All that remained now was to evacuate camp and return by road to Kathmandu. We did this via Shigatse, with its impressive gompa, Tingri and Zang-mu using the route that those wishing to traverse the Himalaya on bicycle would take. In places ‘road’ is rather a misleading term for this washed-out dirt track and I would certainly not recommend the cycle trip to anyone other than a reviled enemy!3 Altogether though this was an interesting, albeit expensive trip, my recommendation would be to choose September or October rather than July to be more certain of good weather.6
The team gratefully acknowledge the support of the Mount Everest Foundation, and the sponsorship of Whiteley & Green and the Leeds & Holbeck Building Society
References and Notes:
Derek on the summit of Machag at 6025 m
During July and August 1999 John Town (leader), Derek Buckle, Gary Hill, Alyson Starling, John Whiteley and Rik Wojtaszewski visited the Jomo Chu valley from where they made an attempt on the SW ridge of the then unclimbed Tangmonja (6194 m), reaching a high point of 5920 m before being forced to retreat. Subsequently John, Derek and Gary successfully climbed a 6025 m neighbouring peak by its SW face that they subsequently named Machag.
Derek Buckle is a retired medicinal chemist now acting part-time as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry. He spends much of this rock climbing, ski-touring and mountaineering in various parts of the world. Apart from climbing, he says his greatest challenge is to find time to accompany his wife on more traditional holidays and filling of his passport with exotic and expensive visas. Derek is Hon Local Secretary of The Himalayan Club in the UK.
Peter Van Geit
My heart was saddened to see centuries old heritage pathways being destroyed by landslides caused by new road construction. Share taxis were soon to follow leaving these heritage paths in disuse.
In early March 2020, I was about to embark on a 2000km long train journey heading North when India went into national lockdown spoiling my plans for a first winter exploration in the Himalaya. After my initial disappointment I soon got connected through my travel blog ultrajourneys.org with Aman doing his PhD on Himalayan glaciers. Sharing the same interest we soon started mapping out the entire Western Indian Himalayas in detail. Over four months we researched various legacy map sources (Survey of India, Soviet army, Olizane ...) and geo-databases (NGA, THC, IMF...) to map out 2000 high passes, 700 glacial lakes, 20 thousand villages and 50 thousand kilometres of hiking routes across the states of Uttarakhand, Himachal, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. Many of these dated maps were bound to be less accurate with marked trails having possibly faded out over past decades, overgrown by jungle, destroyed by landslides or fallen in disuse.
Sunrise above high ranges of East Kumaon as seen from the top of Kalyan peak at 3700 m, high above the Goriganga river valley near Munsiyari in Pithoragarh district
Preparing for a freezing night on the top of the Kalyan peak in mid winter at 3700 m while watching the sunset above the foothills of the southern Nanda Devi section
When the Northern states finally opened their borders again in November 2020 I packed up my bag and was on my way to Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, for my first Himalayan winter exploration. After two years of fast hiking across 150 high passes during summer, I was both nervous and excited to venture out in winter to the high mountains for the first time. I had upgraded my backpack with some latest lightweight winter gear from Huzefa, a friend from Himachal designing his own minimalist hiking gear at blueboltgear.com. I had mapped the entire state of Uttarakhand in high detail through the 1:100K scale Survey of India maps eliminating the need to put together a month’s long traverse in advance. I was planning to keep my route dynamic, deciding each day on the way forward based on weather conditions, advancing snowline and my success or failure rate of exploring these lesser known, ancient trails.
Uttarakhand is dotted with thousands of remote farming hamlets spread across countless valleys, connected by frequented trails and beautiful heritage cobbled rock paths making finding your way, food planning and night shelter easy. Having accurately mapped 20000+ settlements across the Himalayas one can simply hike from hamlet to hamlet referring to the names guided forward by the locals. Most passes connecting neighboring valleys can be crossed in a single day reaching a village in the next valley, providing a safe place to camp and eliminating the need to carry food. Hospitality is unmatched in these lesser known, non tourist regions, many nights a friendly villager insisted on hosting me in his home, providing dinner and a night stay. Uttarakhand also has many isolated dwellings at higher altitudes which are used to graze cattle and farming during summer months. These are deserted in winter providing a safe night halt inside a deserted rock or wooden shelter. These summer dwellings were excellent substitutes for my night stays.
Warm hospitality late at night in the remote hamlet of Sungdom after crossing three high passes in a single day traverse from the Goriganga to the Dhauliganga river valleys
Lush green terrace farmlands at the farming hamlet of Bisauna at 2150 m below the Tikhani pass while crossing over from the Pindar to the Nayar (west) river valley in Pauri Garhwal
Hay stacks during winter on the roofs of traditional homes at village Tila in the Nayar river valley. Cattle stays on the ground floor while people reside on the first floor
During my summer ultra journeys in previous years I had covered passes in the range of 4000 to 6000 m. Being winter now my focus was on a mid-level traverse of Uttarakhand targeting passes between 2500 to 4000 m moving carefully up or down as per weather conditions. Periods of fresh snowfall would lower the snowline forcing me to focus on lower passes while subsequent weeks of snow-free sunny days would retreat the snowline again allowing me move up to higher passes. Exploring these less known trails in winter was an exploration challenge with snow putting a uniform white blanket across the landscape making it easy to lose track. With no clear route or accurate GPS log and navigating using old, inaccurate Survey mapssurveyofindia.gov.in, finding my way across these remote snow covered regions would require use of all my navigation and path finding skills. Many times, offline contour maps were essential to navigate off track when losing the trail. Staying abreast of the weather forecast was a key to survival so as not to get snowed in while exploring very remote regions.
Sunset above the high ranges of the southwest Gangotri section as seen from frozen Masar Tal at 3000 m, a day’s hike from Budha Kedar in Tehri Garhwal district
From the Yamuna river valley in the west to the Goriganga in the east my 2000 km traverse across the breadth of Uttarakhand crossed numerous valleys and rivers flowing down from the high ranges
I focussed on exploring the ’green zones’ on the Open Street Mapsosm.org demarcating virgin nature reserves with lush green forest cover and lesser human habitation. Most days I would not encounter a single soul until I reached a remote hamlet by nightfall. I would usually be ’hopping valleys’, climbing across passes and ridgelines separating adjacent valleys. Over three months I climbed a total of 110 passes adding up to 1.7 lakh m of elevation gain (19x Everest height) or nearly 1.3 passes per day. This enormous effort in a relatively short time frame is only possible by going lightweight using minimalist gear and optimizing food supply. I traversed the entire breadth of Uttarakhand across umpteen valleys: from the Yamuna river in the west to the Goriganga in the east,passing through Bhagirathi, Bal Ganga, Bilangna, Kali Ganga, Amrit Ganga, Alaknanda, Birahi Ganga, Nandakeni, Pindar, Sarju and Ramganga in between. As I was climbing across the ridges in between the valleys I got mesmerizing views on snow capped high ranges in the North: from the Bandarpunch range in the west passing the southwest and northeast Gangotri ranges, Badrinath and Kamet groups, southern and northern Nanda Devi subsections to the eastern Kumaon group near Nepal. Using thepeakfinder.org app I could identify and admire many of the 6000-7000m+ well known peaks like Trishul, Chaukhamba, Nanda Devi, from different angles along my route.
The highlight of the journey was no doubt the heart-warming hospitality of the mountain people in these remote regions of Uttarakhand. Locals would be surprised to see (possibly for the first time) a solo outsider passing through isolated picturesque farming settlements. The immediate, intuitive response of the people would be of concern and offer guidance, a hot cup of tea, a home cooked meal and—if it was evening—night shelter. Villagers would be eager to know where I came from, where I was heading and which country I belonged to, unable to grasp how I had found my way through these remote, off the map locations. Some days I would get invited to different homes several times a day for a cup of hot chai with the entire family or village gathering around. More often than not, I was unable to pitch up my tent,being offered a nice room with a cozy bed and warm blankets at night after indulging in a freshly cooked homemade dinner. Before heading out the next morning, people would prepare breakfast or provide packed lunch and—with genuine concern—guide me in the right direction. The peacefulness and humanity experienced in these untouched natural locations are at a stark contrast with crowded commercialized tourist spots where one encounters hundreds of tents and people piled on top of each other.
Mesmerizing views on the high ranges above Kedarnath as seen from a bugyal in Rudraprayag district on way to the Mankha Khal pass to cross over into the Mandakini river valley
The carcass of a recently deceased leopard in the remote forests of Bal Ganga river valley near the isolated dwelling of Rayana in the foothills of the southwest Gangotri range
Heart warming hospitality at the hamlet of Sainji high above the Birahi river valley after crossing the Agichaura Khal pass from the town of Ghat
Compared to the South Indian jungles which I had been roaming for over a decade as part of the Chennai Trekking Club I usually spotted much less signs of wildlife in the high regions of the Himalaya during previous summer ultra journeys. This time the winter white blanket revealed an active animal world with paws imprinted in the fresh snow across the trail. I regularly encountered foot prints of leopards, deer, wild goats and foxes. While sleeping in deserted shelters high up in the mountains I would hear footsteps of animals roaming around at night or even jumping on the roof of my shelter. In one remote jungle near Ghuttu, I discovered the corpse of a recently deceased leopard. Initially taken by surprise by this close encounter I was initially nervous to inspect this large, beautiful predator. I informed the forest department of the exact location. They recovered the carcass and identified the likely cause of death to be a territorial dispute between males. In many places I encountered jungle fowl that were breeding at high altitude snow covered regions. Equally regular were the black faced langur monkeys living together in communities! Wild goats and deer were usually too attentive to be caught by surprise, spotting them only a few times.
A lady carrying a basket used to collect leaves and wood from the forest in the Dharm Ganga river valley
Many of the isolated dwellings higher up in the mountains and deeper inside the forests were permanently abandoned; partly lying in ruins and farmlands overgrown as young generations were migrating to cities for comfort and easy money. In some cases climate change had dried up streams, vital life sources for these isolated human farming settlements. It was saddening to see these once vibrant farming communities connected by beautiful rock pathways - abandoned as people were moving to the cities to adopt a modern non sustainable lifestyle thus further accelerating environmental degradation and human climate migration seen first in the high mountains. While descending to lower, warmer altitudes with abundant fresh stream water I would encounter vibrant villages surrounded by lush green and yellow (mustard) terrace farms dotted with pastel colored houses made of natural materials. Across Uttarakhand, armies of Nepali workers were building new roads at a hectic pace connecting the most interior valleys followed by power lines and mobile towers while the human migration was happening in the reverse direction. My heart was saddened to see centuries old heritage pathways being destroyed by landslides caused by new road construction. Share taxis were soon to follow leaving these heritage paths in disuse and locals even asked us why we were not travelling by road…
One remarkable aspect seen across Uttarakhand was women folk carrying heavy loads on their backs while men were frequently seen chilling out in groups on rooftops or near the local tea shop. Ladies, young and old, could frequently be seen carrying firewood from afar, lifting large baskets filled with leaves fetched from deep inside the forest, mixing leaves with dung collected from cattle quarters for manure to be put on the farm lands, cooking and feeding a large family (and cattle) after working the entire day outside and of course bearing and raising children. Some ladies were knitting warm clothes while carrying large sized bamboo baskets on their back. Only towards the end of winter, I saw men getting into action, ploughing the terrace farms using bulls. In some remote hamlets I was delighted to still find the art of wool spinning. In those villages where power had not yet reached, a small building near the stream would house a common grinding stone hydro powered by the fast flowing water. November-December turned out to be an auspicious time for marriages that were seen and heard from afar with the playing local instruments and house decorations. Frequently I was invited to these where I could sample local cuisine and observe local tradition and clothing. At one ceremony, ladies were dancing and wildly calling out to the afterlife as the whole village was assembled to remember the recent death of a few of their inhabitants.
Yellow mustard fields surrounding slate roofed homes of Khainoli village in Chamoli district below the snow covered high ranges of Trishul while crossing over from Ramganga to Pindar river valleys
Routes explored were accurately recorded and sent back to my team at home which would upload them onto Open Street Maps visible to the worldwide hiking community. The Survey of India maps turned out to hold a hidden treasure of remote pathways and trails unknown even to some of the locals. Many of these were not entirely accurate but precise enough for me to find the actual trails on the ground and stay on track. In some cases the trails marked on the map were no longer in use and had been completely overgrown by forest or destroyed by landslides. I was navigating using OSMAnd, an offline OpenStreetMap viewer providing me a rich OSM base layer showing terrain, rivers, remote settlements overlaid with contours essential to analyze the topography or steepness of the terrain additionally overlaid with tens of thousands of kilometres of digitized hiking trails. On the ground I discovered 10x more trails than actually marked on the maps, connecting remote hamlets, grazing meadows and local pilgrim destinations. An accurate route on OSM and a detailed daily post on my blog were uploaded for each of the 110 passes / traverses allowing any independent hiker in the world to easily retrace my footsteps by just downloading the GPS log from hiking.waymarkedtrails.org and reading the detailed recount on my blogultrajourneys.org.
Climbing up steeply out of the Jimba Gadhera valley through knee deep snow to the Balsi Khal pass (3900 m) crossing over to the Dhauliganga river valley in Pitoragarh district
The Panchachuli range (6900 m) momentarily turning pink during sunset in Pithoragarh district as seen from the Kalyan top at 3700 m near Munsiyari above the Goriganga river valley
Peter Van Geit does it again. In November 2020 this legendary ultrarunner packed his bags to embark upon his first Himalayan winter exploration of Uttarakhand. Over three months he climbed a total of 110 passes adding up to 1.7 lakh m of elevation gain (19x Everest height) or nearly 1.3 passes per day.
Peter Van Geit was born in Belgium and has settled in Chennai India for the past two decades. He spends time in nature through long endurance journeys. He is a mix of an explorer, ultra runner (minimalist) and alpinist.
As one of the last great problems in high-altitude mountaineering, achieving the coveted first winter ascent of K2 (8611m) was guaranteed to be a historic feat. This was the eight-thousander with the most nondescript of names but of deadliest reputation; the final of fourteen to be summited in winter. Its alias 'The Savage Mountain', paints a fuller, yet bleaker picture. On 16 January 2021, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a ten-strong all-Nepali team made history in more ways than one. One Magar and nine Sherpas started out in three separate teams, but united to reach a common goal. With mere steps to go, they gathered and marched to the summit in unison, breathlessly singing the national anthem of Nepal and bearing their country's unique red and blue pennant flag.
The second-highest mountain in the world, K2 is a savage alchemy of rarefied air, steep topography and harsh, localized weather systems. Writing in Alpinist in 2011, American Steve Swenson described it as 'absolute symmetry between chaos and order.' The pyramidal peak lies 40 miles from civilization, guarded by a formation of Karakoram sentinels as it broods above the desolate Godwin-Austen Glacier, routinely shedding its mantle of ice and rock. Approximately one person dies for every six who summit K2, and in winter the risk of high winds up to 60mph on its steep and exposed routes in temperatures plummeting to -65°C — plus lower barometric pressure, reducing oxygen uptake by the lungs — make for limited windows of opportunity, especially given the short ten-hour day length of the season. The slow and storied race to the first winter ascent of K2 began 33 years ago in 1987-88, when a Polish-Canadian-British team led by AndrzejZawada made the first attempt. Five further winter K2 expeditions were made up until 2019-20. None succeeded.
Of the thirteen first winter ascents of eight-thousanders, none had been claimed by Nepali climbers, despite their having been the backbone of many a high altitude ascent since Sherpas were first employed on an expedition in 1907. Long overlooked by those in the upper echelons of Nepal and undervalued by foreign mountaineers who have relied on their technical and physical competencies to reach summits, the 2021 Nepali team not only entered the history books, but also put their ethnicity and country on the map. Nepali mountain people have progressed from their traditional Sherpa role as porters, to guides and leaders of expedition companies and climbing schools. A new generation of climbers is on the rise; young, professional mountaineers with sponsors, elite skills and fitness, breaking world records en route to the summit. When COVID-19 dashed hopes of guiding international expeditions in Nepal in 2020 and 2021, commercial expedition leaders — and others lacking employment and suddenly free to pursue their own climbing objectives — turned to Pakistan, where borders were open.
'When we joined hands, it was easier for us. In the beginning, we were actually competing against each other. When we joined hands there was no competition between Nepalese brothers, so it made the team stronger.' - Mingma G
Style matters in mountaineering, as the old adage goes. Fixed lines, bottled oxygen and the use of porters are widely debated, but less emphasis is placed on the intangible elements that can make or break an ascent; interpersonal and organizational skills, mutual understanding and respect in times of high tension. Nirmal 'Nimsdai' Purja, an ex-British Army Gurkha and UK Special Forces soldier who completed all fourteen 8000 m peaks in six months in 2019, and MingmaGyalje 'Mingma G' Sherpa, an IFMGA guide and accomplished mountaineer, merged their teams along with Sona Sherpa of the Seven Summit Treks expedition. Through cooperation and compromise, they formed a group greater than the sum of its parts. Geljen Sherpa posed with a Liverpool Football Club shirt on the summit. 'We will never walk alone,' he captioned the photo. Nimsdai would eventually announce that he had summited without supplementary oxygen.
K2, the second highest mountain in the world
Amid the order and success of the Nepali team's summit, the winter 2020/2021 K2 season was ultimately tinged with chaos and loss. SergiMingote (ESP) and AtanasSkatov (BUL) perished in falls, while Muhammad Ali Sadpara (PAK) John SnorriSigurjonsson (ISL) and Juan Pablo Mohr Prieto (CIL) are missing and declared dead on the mountain. No account of a historic climb would be complete without thought for those who died attempting to reach the same goal.2
Despite the progress that has been made and the heights they've climbed to, the Nepali team remains grounded. Nimsdai and Mingma G were quick to thank the Pakistani porters, 'whose role has always been pivotal on this sort of expedition,' Nimsdai wrote on Instagram. 'We had the invisible footmen, porters, carrying all our stuff,' said Mingma G. 'All those porters were from Baltistan, Pakistan and they were very strong and always cheerful. Though we had better food to eat, wearing branded gear and carrying light bags, they were happier and faster than us on the snow. They are the ones who made our K2 successful in the beginning.'
In their own words — and in-between a succession of celebratory receptions in Kathmandu — NimsdaiPurja, Mingma G and Mingma David Sherpa recounted their individual experiences of the climb.
MingmaGyalje 'Mingma G' Sherpa (Team Mingma G): I'll start from the beginning. I was on K2 last year but I had to quit because of my health. I had chest pain and I was coughing all the time. This year, I wanted to go back but I didn't want to take any clients with me because I had in my mind that we should make the summit. If we took clients, it would be a burden for us and we might need to quit at some point.
The 2021 Winter K2 first ascensionists: Nimsdai Purja (Team Nimsdai), Mingma David Sherpa (Team Nimsdai), Mingma Tenzi Sherpa (Team Nimsdai), Geljen Sherpa (Team Nimsdai), Pem Chiri Sherpa (Team Nimsdai), Dawa Temba Sherpa (Team Nimsdai), Mingma G (Team Mingma G), Dawa Tenzing Sherpa (Team Mingma G), Kilu Pemba Sherpa (Team Mingma G), Sona Sherpa (Team SST)
NimsPurja (Team Nimsdai): My first motivation was that K2 was the greatest feat remaining in terms of extreme high altitude mountaineering, so that was a challenge and that's what excites me. Secondly, Nepal is the home of 8000ers and the climbing community here, everyone knows we're the finest mountaineers of them all, but 13 out of 14 first winter ascents were in the name of our international climbing friends. So we wanted to make one at least in the name of Nepal. Most importantly for me, I also wanted to show the world again that nothing is impossible and send a really positive message through this endeavour.
MingmaGyabu 'Mingma David' Sherpa (Team Nimsdai): K2 is one of my favourite mountains, because it's challenging with so many different styles. It's one of the most technical mountains and most difficult. I like that it is mixed climbing. Some mountains are only easy ice climbing, snow climbing or rock climbing, but there is mixed climbing with ice climbing, rock climbing and snow. That's why I like it.
Mingma G: I started to build my own team and I heard about a K2 project by my Nepalese friends [ed. Mingma Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa and ChhangDawa Sherpa] and many people were interested. But there were financial problems. For 2020, almost all the Sherpa remained jobless for the whole year. They didn't have any earnings and we were not certain about 2021 as well. All my friends were worried and didn't want to spend such a huge amount of money. So, I chose some friends from my home valley, Rolwaling. I have known them since birth.
Nims: My team comprised of professional Nepalese mountaineers: Mingma David Sherpa, a record-setting climber and rescuer; Geljen Sherpa, who climbed several Himalayan peaks with me in 2019; MingmaTenzi Sherpa, a highly experienced mountaineer and Sirdar and Dawa Temba Sherpa and PemChiri Sherpa, both certified IFMGA mountain guides. Every team member had a sheer desire and determination to make this impossible ascent possible for humankind and for the Nepali climbing community, who have always been at the frontier of 8000m ascents but never received their dues.
Mingma G: It was very important to choose good people to go to K2 with because it was the last, the biggest and the most difficult mountain. I had to be very careful in choosing my team. Just before we left for Pakistan, one of my Sherpas left the expedition because he was worried about frostbite and losing his life. He put the other Sherpa in a dilemma. They wanted to go, but they were worried about safety. When I met their wives, they didn't want to send Kilu and Dawa with me. They were worried about their safety and the biggest problem was that we were climbing in a different country, so if anything happened it would be very difficult to help us. They were very worried, but I was able to convince them in the end and we travelled to Pakistan. Our mission begins from there.
Before us there was only John Snorri's team in BC from Iceland. They were at BC almost two weeks prior to us. When we reached BC on the 18th, they had fixed the lines to C1, on the same day. While we were making our camp they returned and we just got to say hello, then they came to greet us in the evening as well. Now, we had to work together and they told us we should be responsible for fixing the lines above C1. On the 19th/20th we took two days' rest, trekking from Skardu to BC, we dug the snow on the way. We were very tired when we reached BC.
Mingma David: From Skardu to BC normally takes people eight days, but it takes us just four days. We were quite a strong team and all guys were very experienced. Some of us had already summited K2 before. That's why we were quite fast. After just one day at BC we started to climb. We were all very experienced because we were a Nepalese team.
Nims: The first rotation was pretty tough because we were not fully acclimatized, and our backpacks weighed more than 35 kilos because we were carrying rope, all the fixing equipment and gear. On top of that, we were carrying our own tent and also food and ration to survive for four days, so that waspretty hard. Normally when people go to BC in a day they chill for a bit, they take time to acclimatize, but we stayed at BC for only one day. So we were kind of operating at double speed.
Mingma David: I definitely thought it would be a challenge, but we always had hope because we are all strong and six people fixing lines is enough manpower over 8000 m. That's why I felt this year we would definitely summit, I always felt that.
Mingma G: On 21 December my team started our plan. We didn't want to cause controversy because lots of people follow different calendars, some follow the astronomical calendar and some follow the meteorological. The astronomical window starts from 20 December, so we wanted to start from 21 December and we went to C1 with very heavy loads, almost 40 kg. We were carrying ropes, tents and gear for three days. We slept in C1 and on January 22nd we fixed the line to C2. On 23rd we stashed some of our gear and rope at C2 and descended to BC. When we were fixing from C1 to C2 it was quite windy and cold, and we were using big gloves on our hands. It was actually very difficult to fix, because from C1 to C2 there are some rocky areas and some icy areas which were more technical. Climbing with big gloves was very difficult, but we successfully fixed the line to C2 and when we returned to BC, Nimsdai and his team arrived.
Nims: BC was busy, but I always say hello to other people. I kept the morale of our team to upbecause there were so many climbers. After the first rotation, morale was really low and some other climbing parties were saying 'Oh my God, nobody is going to summit K2 this winter'. Some were saying 'I'm going to give up this job; I'm going to give up my salary.' Basically they were saying that it was impossible, but for me I had been adamant in keeping up the morale of the team and everybody ultimately had a similar attitude. Most of the time we kept to ourselves and we were quite busy trying to make progress in terms of setting fixed lines.
Mingma G: We took two days' rest and then we went back up on the 26th to C1 and on the 27th we climbed to C2 and we set up our camp at 6800 m. We started fixing lines towards C3 on the 29th. We fixed to almost 7000m. Nimsdai and his team were at lower C2 on 29th. On the 30th we requested their help for the fixing campaign. They came from C2 to C3. We were fixing lines in the morning and in the middle of the day we met Nimsdai and one of his Sherpas, MingmaTenzing, and on that day five of us almost reached C3.
Nims: We had never worked together before, but I knew Mingma G was a great climber. I knew that he had done many things before and to be honest, between us we were little like rivals. But then we met at C3 when they were fixing lines and this relationship was made at extreme high altitude. We got back down, we had a chat and realized that our vision, our aim and our objectives were the same. He wanted to do something for the climbing community here in Nepal and for future generations. More importantly, there was no selfishness or agenda. That's why we decided to collaborate and work together. We managed to fix lines just below C3 and then we went back down. We had put our tents up at C2; we had all our summit equipment up there. The plan was to go back down to BC, meet the rest of my team and come up for the summit push the next morning. Unfortunately, this did not happen as when I got to BC, I found my team weren't ready.
Mingma G: We didn't want to go all the way up to C3 because there was a danger of avalanche. It's the most risky place on K2. It can wash away all the camps, but this time it was winter, so most of the snow had blown away and it was more stable. Two hundred metres below C3 we finished our fixing and we returned to C2. On the 31st, we all returned to BC. We met the rest of Nims' team at BC and had a big party because it was New Year's Eve. That created a very good bond between my team and Nims' team. We partied until almost two o'clock in the morning! There was this special moment which was created between both teams. Then we started planning together, we both joined hands to work further together because we wanted to climb to the summit of K2 this time. When we joined hands, it was easier for us. In the beginning, we were actually competing against each other. When we joined hands there was no competition between Nepalese brothers, so it made the team stronger.
Mingma David: When we met Mingma G and his team that made nine people and then [ed. with Sona Sherpa, Seven Summits Treks] we were ten people, which was more than enough manpower. We were now an even stronger team.
Nims: I wanted to take my team back up there for the summit, but then when I got to BC people weren't ready and there were a few issues. So I made the call to not go for the summit on 2 January, where we missed the weather window. Then a pretty horrendous storm arrived and I was upset. My paragliding equipment at C2 was gone as well as my summit equipment and all my insulated batteries for heating etc. I kept a lot of equipment high on the first rotation because then your backpack becomes a bit lighter on the summit push, since then you also have more ropes to carry. But I have a Special Forces background! Everything has a backup plan for a backup plan, but really it was just the paragliding kit that disappeared and otherwise we were fully re-equipped anyway.
Below the chimney (Mingma G)
Mingma G: We got more confidence. We started the climb on the 13th and Team Nimsdai started on the 12th, because they had more loads to carry after C2 was blown away. Our plan was to meet at C3 on the 14th. There were a few foreign friends; they were following our plan too. We got a weather report on the 14th which was very accurate, but there was some problem with the foreign group's weather report, predicting winds at 7000m or so at 60 km/h, but our report was predicting very good weather on the 14th. So the rest of the climbers stayed at C2, but my team and Team Nimsdai continued and we reached C3 on the 14th. On the 15th it was a lucky day for us, but an unlucky day for our foreign friends. On the 15th, when we were fixing from C3 to C4, we didn't have wind at all. There was wind but in the evening only, above 7300 m. There were high winds below 7300 m. So our foreign friends who were trying to summit with us couldn't meet us at C3. On the 16th, our plan was to go to the summit. We felt lucky and we felt that now K2 was only for Nepal. Only the Nepalese could make it at this time.
Nims: Personally, I had to calculate every risk to the death, because I was trying to climb without oxygen. I was also a leader and that means I cannot lead my five strong men from behind, so I knew that I had to keep up with them. Our summit plan was to reach the summit and sing our national anthem together, so for me that was something to consider because without oxygen you're gonna be colder and you're gonna be slower, and I didn't want them to wait for hours at the summit for me. Normally people who go without oxygen are four or five hours behind. The final issue was that I wasn't fully acclimatized. I had only slept up to C2 and had only been on the mountain for two weeks. When you climb without oxygen you have to sleep at C4. I also had frost nip on three fingers. But anyway, I made the call! I totally believed in my ability and I had climbed fourteen 8000 m peaks last year in just six months and six days. I had plenty of experience under my belt and all of those climbs were successful.
Mingma G: Mingma David, MingmaTenzing, Sona Sherpa and I, we're all together on the 15th fixing from C3 to C4. We tried to follow the route which we used in the summertime in June/July. When we were close to C4, we found a big crevasse that was impossible to cross. We had to descend almost all the way to C3 to find an alternative way more on the Česen ridge, which took us almost the whole day.
Mingma David: The days of the summit push were the most important and difficult days in our journey. It was very difficult to find C4 this time. I had climbed on the mountain four times before, also in a fixing team. I had summited K2 twice before. In 2014 and 2018 I took different routes from C3 to C4 because there were some crevasses. This year there were also big crevasses and it was very difficult to find the route. Finally, we made it through at 5 p.m. and in just a few hours we had to leave for the summit, so we descended to C3 to rest.
Mingma G: This was very tiring; I almost lost all my energy for getting to the summit. Previously my plan was to climb K2 without oxygen, but when we were fixing C4 I lost all my energy, so on the 16th I decided to use oxygen to go for the summit.
Nims: We made the summit push from C3, so that means it's a very, very long push and it was winter. We left C3 around 2 a.m. The weather was so, so cold. Honestly, so cold and next level in the mind—my toes were freezing, my hands were freezing and I was stamping my feet on the blue ice just to warm them up. That happened to all my team members. Everybody was like, 'Wow, this is so cold!' in -65°C, with wind-chill.
Mingma David: Nims and Dawa Temba started twenty minutes before as Nimsdai was climbing without oxygen. Every step was challenging, because it was very cold with high winds. That was the very difficult part. Every step. We also had to carry rope and make difficult preparations, like fixing rope and other technical things. Every step was very difficult. My main task was being the cameraman. I needed to take video to follow our story. That was one of the most difficult jobs because of the temperature and it was very difficult to use the camera.
Mingma G: When I reached C4 around 4 a.m., my feet were very cold. At that point I almost quit my climb because I felt so cold. I was very worried that I might lose my feet. I almost quit, but it was lucky that when I tried to contact my friends on the radio, their radios were off. It was not a good idea, without telling the others, to turn back then, anyway, so I continued further and after two hours there was sunshine, which was providing life to me. I continued behind the team. I was not leading the team on this day; I was lagging behind because I almost lost all my energy the previous day. I just continued with the team and it was just kind of encouraging, when everyone was climbing. If somebody turned back then, everyone would lose hope. When everyone continues, we encourage each other.
Mingma David: I met Mingma G after the Bottleneck. I felt that he may be needed help, but he's very strong and then he was always in front of me. I took some video. Night time was more challenging because of the wind, then the temperature. But preparation-wise, we managed everything.
Nims: It was a bit windy, but I think when your purpose and your goal is bigger than you, you're not selfish and you have no agendas. If you have a purpose that you truly believe from your heart and soul, then you get an inner strength and you have a reason why you want to push yourself even harder. Eventually, when the sun came out it brought life to us. Obviously it was getting a bit warmer and we started progressing. It was one hell of an amazingly, horrendously... emotionally... I don't know... a next level experience!
Mingma David: When we came into the sun it was quite good, because we could see each other and take care of each other.
Mingma G: All ten of us made the summit at around 4:45 p.m. I had climbed K2 in 2014 and 2017, twice before, so I knew what I could see. I knew everything about K2, but this time it was something different, because it was a first winter ascent and no Nepalese climbers had made a first winter ascent previously, so this was a proud moment for Nepal. Now we can say we're in the list of first winter ascents. When we all reached the summit we were marching towards it singing the Nepalese national anthem. That was something heart-touching. Emotionally I cannot explain it, but this is one of my lifetime memories. It was kind of magical.
Mingma Tenzi, Mingma G and Mingma David after fixing C4 (Mingma G)
SayaunThungaPhulka/Made of Hundreds of Flowers
Woven from hundreds of flowers, we are one garland that's Nepali,
Sovereignly spread across from Mechi to Mahakali.
A shawl of unending natural wealth,
From the blood of the braves, a nation free and immovable.
A land of knowledge and peace, the plains, hills and mountains tall,
Unscathed, this beloved land of ours, O motherland Nepal.
Diverse races, languages, religions, and cultures of incredible sprawl,
This progressive nation of ours, all hail Nepal!
Nims: The moment when we stopped and everybody was brother to brother, shoulder to shoulder walking together on the summit... It was emotional. Some of my team members were in tears. There was a sense of achievement for everybody, it was a fair deal and when it's a fair deal, greater things happen. If just one man gets to the summit and the rest of the people were working hard, then it's not equal success, it's not good. But more than that, we wanted to send a message to the world as we've got so many issues going on right now with the pandemic, global warming and all these bigger crises that are out there. Nepal is a third world country, our country is very small and we're very poor people, but we have a big heart. We wanted to show that anything is possible if you unite and if you work together, so that was the agenda behind the summit.
Mingma David: I had climbed all fourteen 8,000 metre peaks, including Everest six times and K2 twice before, but this moment was quite different, quite important, as a Nepalese climber. We also climbed the mountain in a different style, all together. In my entire climbing career, this is the best moment.
Mingma G: We were quite late, but that was the plan due to the weather window. We were expecting to reach the summit before 2 p.m., but since this was winter it was more difficult and took more time. We had fixed lines all the way to the summit. When we reached the summit we were not worried. We were all feeling OK, nothing serious. The descent was easier for us, just rappelling very quickly.
Mingma David: Because I felt low energy levels the descent was difficult for me because of the cold and I was coughing. It was very slow and physical. I arrived at C3 at 9 p.m.
200 m below the summit (Mingma G)
Mingma G and Dawa Tenzing on the summit (Mingma G)
Nims: We stayed at C3 because there was an incident; there was a huge rock fall. Honestly, the speed of the rocks comes like torpedos, like artillery firing at you. A lot of people die coming down at night as there are so many loose rocks and we didn't want to have any fatalities or incidents, so we stayed at C3.
Mingma David: I heard the bad news one day before the summit. I heard on the radio that someone fell down below C1 but I didn't know who it was. Next morning at C3 I heard that SergiMingote had fallen. I felt bad because we met a very long time ago and then we also summited K2 together. We also summited Nanga Parbat last year when we were completing Project Possible. We took videos together at C2 and when we were both in Kathmandu.
Nims: We had mixed feelings because we lost our friend SergiMingote. We did not celebrate immediately on arrival at BC. Then there was a feeling of success, of human endeavour. The following days, the weather was bad. Normally, we always party, we always smile because what we believe as a team is that you don't have to be grumpy and stay hardened, you've got to smile and if there's a way that you can create a positive vibe then you should be doing that, because it's all about having positivity all around.
Mingma G: We didn't have celebrations when we arrived at BC. When Sergi died on 16 January, we only got the news on the 17th when we were descending as our BC team didn't want us to worry. When we reached BC we got all the news regarding Sergi and also another Sherpa accident [ed. Jangbu Sherpa was injured by a rock]. There was no point celebrating at BC. We were very happy inside and feeling very proud, but we were sad as well. We went to our tents; we ate, had our dinner and slept. We celebrated later and by then everything was out on the Internet. Now we are getting tired because of so many receptions and parties!
Nims: It's been overwhelming to be honest. It started with meeting the President of Pakistan, then the Chief of Army, one of the most powerful men in the world. Most importantly, the people of Pakistan made us feel like their own. The respect they were giving, the warm welcome was honestly top level. In Nepal we had a really good VIP welcome then we went to the Prime Minister's residence. Everybody knows about this and everybody's so happy and it's such a good feeling. I think we needed this at this time, with the pandemic, with the crisis going on, with the economy falling down. Everybody could be part of this, everybody could be happy through this climb.
The Team at K2
Mingma David: Our summit is very important to Nepalese climbers, they are happy. Also, we climbed as ten people. People think climbing is more about competition from one person to another person, but if we were competitive with each other we would not succeed together. This is a good thing for Nepalese people and all climbers, happening for the first time in mountaineering history. Ten people climbing together, tied together and succeeding. We are very happy, and climbers and people all over the world are too, I think. Everyone is welcoming us warmly. Every day since, we are busy!
The team would like to remember the five lives lost on K2 during this latest winter season:
SergiMingote (ESP) AtanasSkatov (BUL) Muhammad Ali Sadpara (PAK) John SnorriSigurjonsson (ISL) Juan Pablo Mohr Prieto (CIL)
This article first appeared on UKClimbing.com. We have republished it with due permission.
On 16 January 2021, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a ten-member strong all-Nepali team made history in more ways than one. Three separate teams united to reach a common goal. They gathered and marched to the summit of K2 in unison. This was the first time ever despite several attempts in the past that the summit of K2 was reached in winter.
Natalie Berry is Editor-in-Chief of UKClimbing.com and also works as a freelance writer and translator. She has over 20 years of climbing experience and is a former member of the GB Climbing Team. Most recently, Natalie has translated ‘To Live: Fighting for Life on the Killer Mountain’ by Elisabeth Revol from the original French to English.
It was then the duo got struck by the first bolt from the blue. Without any warning, the Vibram sole exfoliated off the left foot of Aloke's almost-new plastic boots (Asolo). It was a moment of disbelief, anger, frustration and reckoning.
At the closing quarter of Ladakh's winter, during February-March 2021, a team of two alpinists, Aloke Kumar Das and Anindya Mukherjee decided to venture deep into the Markha valley with interest in the lesser known (and rarely climbed) peaks of KY III (6280m) and KY IV (6130m), located due south and southwest of the more popular Kang Yatse I(6400m) and II (6200m). The team decided to climb KY II as part of their acclimatization and then proceed to the exploratory part of their adventure via the KongkaNongpola (5080m).
On 24 February, the duo left Leh in a four-wheeler. A newly-built road brought them all the way to the village of Markha. Here, they met muleteer Zangpo (courtesy: Avilash Bisht). After spending a night at Hangkar, and enjoying a scenic hike along the gorge of the completely frozen Markha river, Zangpo and his two mules brought the duo and their gear up to Tachungtse on the 26 February and bid them farewell. The climbers were all on their own. With no another human in sight, they felt the whole valley belonged to them. Tachungtse became their obvious base camp. The duo spent the next two days hiking the ridges due south of Nyimaling. This not only helped them acclimatize, but also gave them a fair idea of the terrain. It is during these last two days, they decided to bypass the meadows of Nyimaling altogether and adopt a more direct approach to the Kang Yatse massif from Tachungtse itself.
The highway of the river Markha
On 1 March, 2021, staying off the trail towards Nyimaling, the duo moved generally south-east of Tachungtse. Riding along a system of lateral moraine ridges, emanating from the KY massif, they camped next to the twin lakes, dedicated to the Guru Rimpoche. The altitude of the camp was approximately 4650m (Camp-1/Jheel camp, Coordinates-33°48'24.0''N, 77°33'34.0''E). On the 2nd, the duo made a direct approach towards KY-II with intentions of reaching its traditional high camp located on its NE spur. Within a couple of hours of leaving the Jheel camp, the duo reached 4950m. The stable moraine ridge leading to the higher camp was within manageable distance. It was then the duo got struck by the first bolt from the blue. Without any warning, the Vibram sole exfoliated off the left foot of Aloke's almost-new plastic boots (Asolo). It was a moment of disbelief, anger, frustration and reckoning. Their purist proposal was blunted by this blow. Immediately, they duct-taped the boot only to realize that it would no longer be crampon-compatible and any decent level of snow and ice-climbing was out of the question on this particular trip. They decided to call it a day and pitch tent. Thus point 4950m became their camp2 (Coordinates- 33°47'20.9''N, 77°33'39.9''E). Sitting in camp2, melting ice and sipping rounds of green tea, both decided to keep going. They knew climbing was not possible but they were aware of a few hiking peaks right across the glacier located due east of KY-I. In fact, they were able to see the peaks Reponi Malai Ri (6050m) and DzoJongo(6280m). They would push further south-east the next day, traverse the glacier and establish another camp on the north ridge of Reponi Malai Ri.
Camp 3. KY 1 on the right and the slope on the left leads to Leponi Mala Ri
Aloke displaying the national flag after we took decision to turn back
On 3March, the duo descended to the glacier floor and plodding through knee-deep soft snow, gradually climbed up the north ridge of Reponi Malai Ri. As soon as they topped the ridge, high wind greeted them, blowing directly from the west. To avoid the wind, they started traversing the ridge by staying a bit low on the east slope of the ridge. By 2:00pm, the gale had turned into a jet stream and hiding on the eastern slope of the ridge was not helping much. By that time they had reached 5200m, and a relatively safe spot to pitch a tent. With the wind showing no signs of abating anytime soon, they decided not to push higher and camped. After locating a relatively level ground and two patient hours of struggle including a snapped pole, they were able to pitch a tent in the incessant wind. Thus, at around 4:00pm, at 5200m, they placed camp3 (Coordinates-33°46'21.9''N, 77°34'50.0''E) on the north ridge of Reponi Malai Ri.
On 4th March morning, they pushed for the summit of Reponi Malai Ri from their camp3. The wind seemed to be a bit kind at this hour and by maintaining a steady pace they were able to reach an altitude of 5600m (Coordinates- 33°45'45.0''N, 77°35'07.3''E) within two hours march from their camp. It was then, Aloke realized that the duct tape had given away without his knowledge and the sole had performed a perfect vanishing act. With just one piece of a proper pair left, the duo decided to climb up no further and retraced their steps to camp3. The next day, in order to ensure safety, they took a slower, longer but less steep route back to their camp1. On 6th March, they were back at the relative warmth and safety of Tachungtse. On 7th March, they were back down at the village of Markha and reached Leh on the following day.
A map showing our route in Feb-March 2021. Red Circles are villages where we slept on our way in and out. Red Triangles are our camps. The Red star shows our tentative high point of this trip
A Final Word
Thus, what started as a purist pursuit of a winter adventure, culminated not on summits of mountains, but on overcoming unexpected obstacles and unavoidable situations. The two-person- team operated on their own for 12 days in the upper reaches of the Markha valley with not a single soul in sight. They made three camps, navigated and broke their own trail and reached up to 5600m. They turned back choosing safety over summit. The average temperature during their time in the mountains ranged between -15°C to - 30° Celsius. Yes, they could not stand on the summit of any peak this time, but they didn't stray from their principles either.
During February-March 2021, a team of two alpinists, Aloke Kumar Das and Anindya Mukherjee decided to attempt peaks of Kang Yatse III (6280m) and IV (6130m) in the Markha valley in Ladakh. Due to unforeseen obstacles, they could not achieve the alpine style ascents but learnt to deal with different adversities that they had to confront.
Anindya Mukherjee is an active mountaineer and adventurer with a penchant for exploration. He has been on more than 35 mountaineering expeditions across the Indian Himalaya and has quite a few first ascents to his credit. More than anything else, he is deeply interested in the lives of peoples that he meets across the globe. He writes about his adventures regularly in a regional newspaper in West Bengal. He is a life member of THC and the recipient of the inaugural Jagdish Nanavati Award for Excellence in Mountaineering.
Beyond the base camp, only three climbers moved up in a ‘carry-camp and climb’ style in a single push that lasted three days. No ropes were fixed, no load ferries were done above base. The cumulative weight of food for five people for the entire duration of the trek and climb was below 20 kg.
“The only good reason to climb is to improve yourself”, said Yvon Chouinard. “Better we raise our skill than lower the climb”, said Royal Robbins. Bearing the simple yet profound messages of these legendary climbers in mind, a few of us decided to test ourselves on an alpine style, self -supported climb on a Himalayan mountain in the middle of winter. To maintain the purity of our climb, we decided that we would not hire high altitude porters or local guide above base camp. Our team comprised of four members and one low altitude porter. While one member had done quite a few alpine style winter ascents, the rest of the team were being introduced to this style and season for the very first time.
We chose Baljuri (5922m) as our objective as for the following reasons:
Ease of access. The base camp of Baljuri can be reached within a three-day hike and there is a well-established trail up to the Pindari glacier Zero Point. While the three days of hiking contributed to the team’s acclimatization process, we realized this (existence of trail up to BC) was an added advantage considering the winter snowfall pattern all over Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in December 2020.
Comparative non-technicality of the climb. For a team such as ours, treading snows from deep down on the valley floor would be a decent challenge in itself. Choosing an objective that demands additional artificial gear placement would be raising the bar a bit too high. We wanted to take one step at a time while improving skill as a team.
Towards Camp 1
On 11 December the team reached the village of Khati via Kapkote and managed to hire two ponies upto Dwali and engaged Jai Singh Danu who agreed to go as far as the traditional base camp of Baljuri. As none of the four climbers had ever been to the Pindar valley before, and as all the trails on the true right of the upper Pindar valley were hidden under snow, the solitary purpose of hiring just one porter was to locate the right starting point for the climb from the valley floor and to obtain a general direction of the route to the Buria glacier.
However, as the winter snowline had reached well below Dwali, it became their basecamp. They reached Dwali on 12 December and as all huts were closed for the season, they camped inside the rest shed above the PWD rest house. On 13th, they ferried their loads to Phurkiya and on 14th the whole team shifted there. The next day they made one more ferry to the traditional base camp site of Baljuri and shifted there. Beyond Dwali and half way up to the zero point the team found the trekking trail under six inches to one foot of snow, but in tread worthy conditions.
On 17th Aniket, Rivusoumya and Anindya started climbing the spur that leads one to the traditional camp 1 site of Baljuri. Ashish was forced to stay back as he had developed an acute tendon injury in his right leg on the previous day. By now the spur was a mixture of frozen grass, mud and boulders under a thick and deceptive (and sometimes treacherous) blanket of soft new snow. The trio reached the traditional camp 1 area after a six hour climb and spent the night there. The camp 1 site (4160m) itself was comparatively free of snow as it faces east and gets a lot of early morning sun.
On 18th December, the three started pushing higher. Very soon they found themselves in knee-deep to waist deep snow on a gradient that ranged between 35 to 45 degrees. The going became increasingly slow as a result and finally after five hours of trail breaking, step making, plodding, pushing and almost frustrating route finding through unconsolidated powder filled gully systems the three could climb only 500m. In the hope that early morning hours would offer better snow conditions the trio decided to call it a day and dug a ledge on the north eastern face of point 4800m located approximately 800m south east of the Baljuri col and made a bivi there. The altitude was approximately 4600m.
The bivi at 4600 m
On 19th December, as the three started climbing further, to their surprise they found no change or improvement in snow conditions as hoped due to overnight freezing. As the team was getting very close (100m) to reaching a comparatively easier angled neve of the Buria glacier, they encountered slab formations big enough to sweep them clear off the face. It is then the team decided to turn back immediately. They reached the basecamp by 5:00pm and were greeted by Ashish and Jai. On 20th December, the whole team trekked down to Dwali and on the 21st to Sarni, a hamlet at the road head of Kharakiya.
Style of Expedition
It was a lightweight, low carbon footprint and low budget expedition in general. Two mules were hired up to Dwali. Beyond Dwali (2610m) Jai Singh Danu of Khati village accompanied the team up to the base camp as a porter. Beyond the base camp, only three climbers moved up in a ‘carry-camp and climb’ style in a single push that lasted three days. No ropes were fixed, no load ferries were done above base. The cumulative weight of food for five people for the entire duration of the trek and climb was below 20 kg.
The total expenditure of the expedition was Rs. 1, 02,851/-. This included travel and permit costs. Individual contributions and kind donations by well-wishers made this expedition possible.
Grade of climb: Grade- III considering winter conditions and altitude.Acknowledgement of support
The expedition members are grateful to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and other individuals and agencies for their kind patronage, guidance, camaraderie and support. A special mention of thanks must go to Nilanjan Patra for a meticulous summary of meteorological forecasts.
A team of four climbers (Aniket Mitra, Rivusoumya Das, Ashish Chanda and Anindya Mukherjee) made a bold attempt to climb Baljuri 5922 m in alpine style by the Baljuri col - north ridge route. From the valley floor of Phurkiya, they adopted a carry, camp and climb style After establishing two camps beyond the base the team turned back from an approximate altitude of 4650 m anticipating avalanche risk. Every protocol related to Covid-19 was maintained while the team travelled through cities, towns and villages en route. The team left Kolkata on 7 December, 2020 and returned on 24 December, 2020.
Anindya Mukherjee is an active mountaineer and adventurer with a penchant for exploration. He has been on more than 35 mountaineering expeditions across the Indian Himalaya and has quite a few first ascents to his credit. More than anything else, he is deeply interested in the lives of peoples that he meets across the globe. He writes about his adventures regularly in a regional newspaper in West Bengal. He has been working tirelessly as a relief worker during the recent spate of disasters in the Himalaya and Bengal. He is a life member of the HC and the recipient of the inaugural Jagdish Nanavati Award for Excellence in Mountaineering.
The last two and a half days of descent meant a hard fight to return among the living. The dangerous ridge and a steep icefall cost us a lot of energy and nerves. We ran out of food and both our bodies and minds felt really used and fatigued.
On May 23 we made the first ascent of the North-West face of Chamlang (7321 m), the face that has been attempted by many expeditions in the past without any success. The summit of Chamlang oversees the Hongu valley from an exposure of two thousand metres. It rises up from the moraine with a lake and reminds us more a solitaire than an integral part of the central Himalayan ridge with numerous other summits. I have kept this goal in my mind for nearly twenty years; however, its realization began as late as this year.
There were several obvious problems we had to cope with. The gradually vertical face offered no ’weaker’part that would seem easier for our ascent. We found very hard mixed parts as well as sections of pure rock and ice. The other objective danger was the lack of natural shelter spots up on the wall that could be used during adverse weather conditions. Similarly, good bivi spots were very rare. This sent a clear message—we had to be fast enough with the help of God Almighty. The last unanswered question to think about was the descent, how to get down from the summit. No prospective descent route offered an easy retreat.
Northwest wall of Chamlang with the climbing route from Hungku valley
Magical view of the central Himalaya
On 16th May, we crossed the glacier and spent a night right at the foot of the climb. Next dawn found us climbing the first metres up the route. We packed a small bivi tent, one eighty-metre rope seven millimetres in diameter, six ice screws, five pitons and five friends. We also added food supplies for five days plus three gas cartridges next to the necessary dose of good fortune to our backpacks. The following days turned out just as we imagined. There was loose rock at the lower part followed by hard mixed climbing and concrete-like ice. Bivouacs were gradually getting worse higher up providing space for about half a body size, while we needed to seat our two butts there. On May 20 we reached the top of the face and traversed the whole summit ridge including the main summit on 21 May.
First two days of climbing alternated between poor quality ice and crumbling rock
The last two and a half days of descent meant a hard fight to return among the living. The dangerous ridge and a steep icefall cost us a lot of energy and nerves. We ran out of food and both our bodies and minds felt really used and fatigued. Finally on 23rd May we arrived below the face again with a great climbing feat behind us; a childhood dream fulfilled. We returned to base camp with no one waiting for us besides a package of dehydrated food in a single tent; no celebrating crowds. The next day we loaded up the whole base camp on our sore backs and crossed the Merala in the direction of civilization. This is the end.
We dedicated the climb to the memory of the ascent of Reinhold Messner and Doug Scott, who supposedly saw a UFO during their ascent of Chamlang… who knows what it was. I had an alien named ‘Hook’ beside me all the time, (my climbing partner, ZdenekHák). This climb was the hardest we had done together in the mountains, ABO in other words. It was really our hardest climb, we could even think of its international importance.
Long icy section on the third day
Endless descent (Hook)
Frozen smiles (Hook to the left)
The first ascent of the northwest face of Chamlang (7321 m) in Hungku valley, by Marek Holeček and Zdenek Hák in Alpine style.
This was one of the Honoured Ascents of 2020 Piolets d’Or.
Marek “Mára” Holeček is a Czech mountaineer, explorer, author and documentary filmmaker. Holeček has previously received the 2018 Piolet d’Or award for his successful full ascent on the southwest face of Gasherbrum I with Zdeněk Hák, which he achieved in Alpine style.
Sunil Kumar Raju
I believe there is something about the bonds that you forge in these kinds of places, which grow and are appreciated only over time. Hope to see this team on much bigger mountains.
An early morning drive from Leh to Skiu took us through Indus-Zanskar confluence. It was quite a sight, seeing both the mighty rivers frozen. Driving past the confluence, we entered the adjacent valley along the frozen Zanskar river. Even though the drive was a pleasant one, I had an uneasy stomach, courtesy chicken fried ricefrom last night. By the time we reached Skiu, I was hit by diarrhea and vomiting. It was a bad start for me as even before we started the trek, I was extremely dehydrated. We were well on our way to attempt Kang Yangtse II, 6200 m, in the heart of winter.
Within half an hour, the trail took us to the banks of the frozen Markha river. It would occasionally cross the river, which meant we had to walk on it. That gave me enough adrenaline to get through the day. By evening, we reached the biggest village in the valley, Markha. A man in his late twenties, Jang Po joined our team as support staff. The people of the valley had amazing hospitality.
The frozen Indus-Zanskar confluence
That night we felt the raw cold seeping from the ground. The temperature dipped as low as minus 20°C. My stomach kept me awake all night. Multiple walks to the toilet were no easy task, my body opposed every step in that cold. The next morning, fortunately my body was back to normal. Leaving behind Markha, we trekked towards the last village in the valley. The trail was almost flat and well-marked. En-route, Sanjeev spotted few Himalayan birds and told us about the native birds’ migration patterns and food habits.
The sun high in the clear skies, the frozen river by the side, and occasional wildlife sightings made this part of the trek joyful. At one corner along the trail, we got the first glimpse of Kang Yatse. The mountain was completely covered in snow. Sanjeev said that sighting the mountain from this far meant that the weather was fair; that came as good news to us.
By evening, the trail stopped at a beautiful village, Hankar, situated at the base of huge rock formations. At dinner, Nawang told us about an inaccessible fort on the top of a huge rock at the end of the village. It was fascinating to hear about this valley from him because gathering information about a place that was not documented meant talking to elders and hearing oral histories passed on from previous generations. Nawang was a natural; a true historian.
The next morning, we started towards the basecamp and with an increase in altitude, the frozen river grew thicker. The support team had to start early to put some dirt on the frozen river, which melts the ice, thus making a path for the ponies till the base camp. In a couple of hours, we reached the base camp.
Later that afternoon, we learnt that the ponies could go no higher due to winter conditions, which meant we would have to ferry loads to the higher camps. We quickly sorted out the gear and packed it in our rucksacks. (My 100-lt rucksack was filled to the brim).
The plan was to set up three high camps above base camp. Without the luxury of ponies this was easier said than done. The weather seemed perfect the next morning, so we set out for camp 1. Crossing the frozen river made it very difficult. After four hours, we sighted a deserted shepherd camp. Dumping our gear we set up camp 1 around it and returned to base camp.
The steep climbs and huge ice crossings with heavy rucksacks made this little circuit really tiring. Early delicious dinner, early sleep, and wake-up call after sunrise made sure that the bodies didn’t go numb. Even though the body goes through the harsh conditions, these sleeping/resting hours makes it easy on the body so that it recuperates faster.
The next day we again made the trip to camp 1. Here we divided into two teams.
Team 1 (rope fixing team): Sunny and Jang Po
Team 2: Sanjeev, Nawang, Ritesh and I.
After a brief stop at camp 1, Team 1 went ahead to camp 2 while Team 2 stayed back at camp 1. Till base camp, we had streams that supplied us with water, but above base camp, we had to strip out ice from layers below the surface and melt it for water. After dinner, in pursuit of a little extra warmth, I went in to my sleeping bag zipping it up fully with just a small gap for the nose, Little did I know that this would lead me to my worst nightmare ever.
The route from camp 1 to 2 seemed doable in a couple of hours, but when we started in the morning with heavily loaded rucksacks it took six hours to reach camp 2. The entire path was covered with knee depth snow, and in a few places, we sank until the waist. Navigating in this deep soft snow consumed a lot of energy and time.
We did a Deadman’s march till we reached camp 2 in the evening. Tired from the journey, we quickly had dinner and dove into sleeping bags, still living nightmares from the previous night. While we enquired about the weather ahead, Sunny warned us about the cold. (By this time, the team 1 was at camp 3).
The next morning, Ritesh couldn’t continue, so, along with Nawang, he returned to base camp while Sanjeev and I set off for the next camp. Camp 2 to camp 3 was the hardest part. It took us through soft snow on top of rocks that meant a small misstep would lead to an ankle twist. It took me a staggering eight hours on a steep slope in heavy headwinds. I still vaguely remember that my saturation level hit 55 percent that night, but I was comfortable inside the tent with hot soup while I was tucked inside my sleeping bag.
That night light snow and winds grazed the mountain. We woke up at around 4:00 am. I noticed a lack of excitement for the summit push. It came as a surprise to me because usually, summit days are very exciting for me. I took a look at Sunny in the adjacent tent, who was packing water and snacks for Sanjeev, himself, and me. This man had already been on the mountain for rope fixing the day before, and today he was ready again; a true powerhouse. Seeing him gave me enough motivation to come out of the bag into boots.
By this time, winds grew much stronger, and spending time in that cold to put on crampons drained even more energy. I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, but I was still on for the summit, thinking I could slowly march ahead in auto mode.
On 25 February the team reached the summit at 11:30 am
As the sun hit us, we reached the fixed rope section. I was repeatedly failing to jumar myself on the rope as I was dead tired. Sanjeev fearing that I might use up the rest of my energy suggested that we rope up to continue our push forward.
With my beard and mustache frozen, I could barely move my jaw to speak. I just nodded my head.
After three more hours, stopping every three steps to catch our breath, we finally reached the summit. All of a sudden, the excitement and the energy was back. We are not sure, but this could probably be the first winter ascent of Kang Yatse II. We congratulated each other, clicked a few pictures, and made a phone call (there was a mobile network at the summit!). We stayed there for an hour and then slowly set back towards the base camp whilst clearing all the three high camps that we set on the way up.
All in all, my first winter ascent had everything, from bone-chilling cold to frozen rivers to frozen faces on summit day. In those 15 days, I did not see the temperature go above 0°C. That was quite an experience.
The amazing team made it all the more memorable. I believe there is something about the bonds that you forge in these kinds of places, which grow and are appreciated only over time. Hope to see this team on much bigger mountains.
A team comprising of Ritesh and Sunil Kumar Raju, supported by White Magic Adventure Travel members Sanjeev Rai, Sunny, Nawang, Anno, Jangpo and support staff attempted the first winter ascent of Kang Yangtse II, 6200 m. Sunil, Sanjeev and Sunny reached the top, thus becoming the first successful team to summit the mountain in winter.
Sunil Kumar Raju a recent post-graduate in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Madras, is always looking either to climb a mountain or sail the oceans. His bucket list includes: meet a penguin; hug a panda; swim with a dolphin; watch a whale sing and fly alongside an eagle.
The expedition was at a crucial juncture as the route opening team was at camp 4 getting ready to open the summit route. But the Sherpa team exhausted their rope just 800 m beneath the summit! Free climbing in the death zone would be utter stupidity.
On 16 Apr at around 7:30 am, Giripremi’s team was well on its way to the top of Annapurna I. They had been climbing over eight hours but an imposing 600 m knee deep snow field had yet to be negotiated. A steep vertical couloir at the top would be the last obstacle. As the day wore on, ominous looking clouds began to cover the mountain inhibiting the progress. The team members followed the route opening Sherpas but high winds began to gush in at regular intervals along with the clouds. Finally, at 2:15 pm, BhushanHarshe, Dr. SumitMandale andJitendraGaware reached to the top of Annapurna I after 14 hours of climbing.Giripremi’s eighth 8000er expedition was successful! Hearing their cheerful voices on walkie-talkie, my heart knew no bounds of joy. As I hung up the phone and looked up at her majesty from the basecamp, entire journey of the expedition flashed in front of me.
Preparations for the expedition wereon in full swing in March 2020. Equipment, high altitude clothing, food ration, medicines were already sent to Nepal. The four man team was set to depart for Kathmandu. In the meantime, the COVID19 pandemic had begun to spread beyond China and was poised to enter India. Government of India shut all international travel and Nepal was quick to follow. Our expedition was suspended indefinitely. At that time, no one knew the intensity and duration of this suspension. The idea of lockdown was entirely new. Within a week’s time, we began to feel the gravity of the pandemic and our expedition was abandoned.
The entire year was spent braving the novel disease. While we were off the expedition, we took on the battle against the pandemic by launching various social efforts such as food and medicine distribution, blood and plasma donation.
En route to the top
By January 2021, the intensity had begun to lessen and chances of Nepal opening its gates for mountain expeditions had begun to grow. In anticipation we began to re-launch the expeditionin February 2021. Thanks to our supporters and well-wishers we were able to raise the formidable budget of INR 60 lakh for the expedition. But then there was another massive blow. Ashish Mane, the most experienced and fierce mountaineer, who had scaled five 8000 m mountains previously including Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kangchenjunga and Manaslu, could not join the team. We roped in Dr. SumitMandale, a medical practitioner, who had climbed Cho Oyu and Kangchenjunga. Thus, our team was formed and exactly one year after we first planned it, we left for Kathmandu on 14 March 2021.
Being quarantined in a room for 10 days, doing nothing, was far more challenging than actual mountain climbing. Also we lost 10 crucial days when we had planned an acclimatization ascent of Mt. Chulu Far East. We cancelledthis and headed to Muktinath to acclimatize at 4000m.
Annapurna is one of the most difficult mountains because of its unpredictable weather patterns and sudden massive avalanches,apart from technical difficulties of negotiating crevasses, steep blue ice walls, and endless knee deep snow fields. Statistically, 32 out of 100 mountaineers die on Annapurna I. Most climbers go missing. Fixed ropes vanish in avalanches, blizzards and lead to navigational difficulties.
Vivek Shivade from Pune kept us updated with the weather forecast. Accordingly, we prepared our plan for first rotation.On day 3, the team reached back to basecamp having studied the terrain and atmospheric conditions, acclimatizing to the higher altitudes, and dumping their summit push equipment at camp 2. Having performed the pre-summit push preparations, we awaited a suitable weather window. Weather forecast showed consistent jet streams raging at 150 km/hr. Climbers can generally attempt such peaks if the wind speed is below 40-45 km/hr. These weather windows are short and occur with no distinct pattern. One needs to closely monitor the meteorological developments not just at the mountain but even in the surrounding continents. 14-16 April seemed to be a suitable period for summit push. On 11 April, the Sherpa team, and on the next day the Giripremi team left basecamp for the final march. Accordingly, on 15th route openers would summit, followed by Giripremi team on the next day.
Route opening is one of the crucial techniques in high altitude climbing. A team of strong and experienced Sherpas performed this mammoth task of fixing the rope from basecamp to the summit. Other climbers took the support of this fixed rope during the ascent. The route needs to be fixed each year as the old ropes get buried deep under the snow due to accumulated snowfall.
On the summit
The most challenging part of the climb was from camp 2 to camp 3. Steep blue ice walls, daylong ascent, terrain packed with crevasses below and the ice seracs looming from above. Reaching camp 3 was equivalent to winning the half battle. Our team left for camp 3 on 13 April. But terrible weather and snowfall reduced visibility toarm’s length. In this situation, negotiating the crevasse fields and seracs would have been a risky matter. So, our team stayed back at camp 2, reaching camp 3 the following day after a bone chilling eight hour ascent. The expedition was at a crucial juncture as the route opening team was at camp 4 getting ready to open the summit route. But the Sherpa team exhausted their rope just 800 m beneath thesummit! Free climbing in the death zone would be utter stupidity. For our team, if the route was not fixed, further climbing was not possible. The dejected and exhausted route openers returned to camp 4. At base camp, I discussed matters with Seven Summits Agency Director who was equally bewildered. We were losing our weather window with each passing hour. The only way to move ahead was to arrange for additional rope and send it to the higher camps at earliest. We decided to heli-drop 1000 m additional rope from Kathmandu at camp 3. But it would take three days for the Sherpa team to descend and carry it back to camp 4. A godsend came in the form of Alexander from Canada, an astute pilot. On 15 April he not only managed to drop the rope but also additional food and oxygen resupplies at 7000 m near camp 4.
On 15th night, brimming with energy and confidence, our Sherpa team set forth for yet another summit push. Team members were close behind as the weather window was short. That night it snowed heavily at higher camps. Visibility was next to nil. So all the teams departed at 11:30 PM when the skies began to get clearer. It was a favourable sign. As the night passed and the sun began to glitter behind the eastern clouds, winds picked up speed.Progress slowed down. Most of the teams were well below 7500 m mark at 8:00 am on 16th morning. Dreadful looking clouds had begun to gather around the mountain. Our team was yet to tackle the difficult 100 m steep couloir just beneath the summit. But they kept inching towards the summit disregarding the fatigue, and bad weather. Finally at 2:15 pm on 16th April 2021, BhushanHarshe, Dr. SumitMandale, and JitendraGawarestood atop the world’s 10th highest mountain - Annapurna I. With the summit of Annapurna I, Giripremi became the only club in India to ascend eight 8000er mountains.
However, the battle was only half-won as the descentproved tricky. The team managed to reach to camp 4 without any casualty. Giripremi climbers were in perfect shape and without any injury or illness. Finally on 17 April, at around 7:30 pm, our successful trio reached basecamp.
Amongst all our grand efforts, Annapurna I was special as it was technically extremely challenging. Additionally, the pandemic had wrecked the world including India.
Before 2021, there were just 250 odd Annapurna I summiteers. On the other hand 7000 have scaled Everest. The statistics indicate why climbers are not willing to attempt this peak. However, 2021 broke all the records. On that single day of 16 Apr 2021, 67 mountaineers reached the top and descended without any casualty. Eight Indians apart from the Giripremi three made it to the summit of Annapurna I.
Giripremi’s Bhushan Harshe, Dr. Sumit Mandale, and Jitendra Gaware successfully scaled the world’s 10th highest mountain - Annapurna I on 16 April 2021. With this Giripremi marked its 8th successful 8000 m ascent after Everest in 2012, Lhotse in 2013, Makalu in 2014, Cho Oyuand Dhaulagiri in 2016, Manaslu in 2017, and Mt. Kangchenjunga in 2019.
Umesh Zirpe is an experienced mountaineer and organizer of large expeditions. He has organized over 20 successful expeditions includingEverest, Lohtse, Makalu, Cho-Oyu and Dhaulagiri. A Shree Shiv Chatrapati Sports Awardee, he is Director of the Guardian Giripremi Institute of Mountaineering, the first climbing institute in Maharashtra and author of several articles and a book on Everest.He is the ‘Leader, Giripremi’s Quest of 8000ers’. He says, “Today, I feel content to have gotten an opportunity to lead eight expeditions successfully and with no casualty nor any illness.
I wrote a letter to him suggesting that the exciting ice wilderness of East Karakoram be made an international ‘sporting area’ with access from both countries. The local villagers on the access routes would benefit.
Since the summer of 1984, there has been a war in the Karakoram between India and Pakistan that has gone largely unnoticed by the world, even though thousands of lives have been lost -the Siachen War, a war over the largest glacier area in the non-polar world. In the summer of 1978, Volker Stallbohm, Wolfgang Kohl and I undertook the ‘German Kondus-SiachenExpedition’,the third ever visit to the glacier from the west. A film report was made about our expedition. Unfortunately, the photos I sent to National Geographic got lost in the post. How did it even come about that we were on the Siachen in the summer of 1978? Here is the story.
On the first trip to Ladakh in the summer of 1974, I had the idea of navigating the Indus ina dinghy, and that's what happened the next year with the Indo-German Indus Expedition. Volker Stallbohm and I met the legendary Sheikh Abdullah, then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in Srinagar. We expected him to help us get the inner line permit for the part of the Indus between Demchok and Upshi. I had in my luggage a photo I had taken of him at the mosque in Hazratbal in 1974. So we stood, simply in jeans, face to face with the ‘Lion of Kashmir’ and presented him with the photo. "And what can I do for you?" We told him that we were about to paddle on the Indus in Ladakh. He told his secretary to put us in touch with Kumar.
The next day we met the famous Lt.-Col.Narendra‘Bull’Kumar. He was in need of an adventure that would give his fading fame a refreshing shot. Saying that the inner line permit would not be a problem if he were the leader,Bull became the leader of the just established Indo-German Indus Expedition. The next day, the Indian press already knew about this new great adventure. After the Indus Expedition in August 1975, the District Commissioner in Leh suggested that we should take the boat down the Nubrariver as we had already come all the way from Germany with the boat. The river flows from the Siachen glacier first into the Shyok, which then finally flows into the Indus.
Back in Germany, I got hold of literature on the discovery and exploration of the Western Himalayas and the Karakorams. It turned out that the 78 kmSiachenis the longest glacier outside the Polar regions. The glacier tongue is located in the Nubravalley, north of Leh. Siachen did not receive its first visit from the west until 1909. It was the British explorer and mountaineer Dr Tom Longstaff who gave the glacier the name ‘Siachen’, meaning ‘rose bush’ in the Balti language. The glacier was properly explored and mapped by the American couple Fanny Bullock Workman and Hunter Workman, who spent the summers of 1911 and 1912 in the glaciers of the East Karakoram with their expeditions. They made their way through the Saltoro valley and not from Leh. In the book ‘Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of Eastern Karakoram’they presented the results of their travels.The first explorer to reach Siachen from Leh and through the Nubra valley was the Italian geologist Giotto Dainelli in the summer of 1930. He spent six weeks in the area. After the World WarII, no one came from the west for quite some time.
Full moon on Lolophond glacier
Our base camp at the confluence of Lolophond and Siachen; view back towards Bilaphond la
The source of the Siachen is at the Indira Col (5770 m). The pass, like most of the surrounding peaks, got its name from the Workmans in 1912 and has nothing to do with Indira Gandhi.
For us the big problem with Nubra valley and the mountains in East Karakoram, thus also with Siachen was the inner line permit. When I proposed to Bull to go together to the longest glacier in the world, the publicity addict only said, "there is no adventure in walking on long glaciers". Stallbohm's attention at the time was drawn to the unclimbed 7000m peaks in the Siachen area.
Volker Stallbohm remembers, “One of these mountains seemed easily accessible via the Nubra valley and was unclimbed: Mamostong;a worthwhile goal. I had quickly devised a route and sought permission, believing that Sheikh Abdullah's and perhaps Kumar's support could help. So I flew to India with the intention of meeting Sheikh Abdullahand also Kumar, and with their support to get permission for a trip to Nubra and the Mamostong Kangri. I had brought a US Army Map Service map (1:250 000) to discuss the route with him. This map aroused his curiosity. I told him that this map was freely available for purchase in Germany gave it to him. The project came to nothing and the map, in the hands of Bull Kumar and senior army officers probably became the basis for the imminent conquest of the Siachen glacier by the Indian Army and an absurd conflict."
That was in 1977. Shortly after the start of the winter semester 77/78, Volker showed me two reports of Japanese first ascents in East Karakoram. One ascent had taken place in the summer of 1975 and was successful on both Teram Kangri I (7463 m) and TeramKangri II (7406 m). Another Japanese team reached the summit of Singhi Kangri (7202 m) in 1976. All three mountains rise on the east side of Siachen. The Japanese climbers reached Siachen from the Pakistani side. They followed the route of the 1912 expedition of Fanny Bullock Workman and Hunter Workman, coming to Siachen via the Bilaphond and Lolophond glaciers. Volker suggested that we should also try it from the Pakistani side, as the Pakistanis were easier to deal with than the Indians. So in October 1977 we applied in Bonn at the Embassy of Pakistan for the ‘German Bilafond-Siachen-Kondus-Expedition’. We were not so surprised that we received a rejection at the end of March.
In June 1978 I received a telegram from Islamabad: "If interested the permission for GermanSiachen-Kondus Expedition granted. Contact Pakistan Embassy in Bonn". Huh, what now? The expedition would have to be organized within six weeks. No problem in getting the equipment, but where would we get the money? We managed to get a contract from WDR for a 45-minute documentary, which covered not only the film production costs but also the expedition costs. Wolfgang Kohl joined us as film producer and cameraman. We landed in Islamabad on 18 July 1978. From the Ministry of Tourism in Islamabad we were assigned as liaison officer AsadRaza, Major of the Pakistan Army. That was a great stroke of luck. Intelligent, well-educated and very interested in the expedition.
Siachen at the confluence with Teram Shehr glacier
Descent from Bilaphond la
In Pakistan, probably the worst summer since the Karakoram expeditions was waiting for us. Just to reach Skardu by plane took ten days. The Fokker Friendships of Pakistan International Airlines could only fly through the Indus valley past Nanga Parbat. On the 10th attempt, we were lucky. Even after we finally reached Skardu by plane and Khapalu, our actual starting point, by car, the weather remained the biggest concern. We were the last expedition that went to Saltoro this year and so we were besieged in Khapalu by a big bunch of porters willing to work. There were only four of us but we had 500 kg of luggage. At 25 kg per coolie, it meant we needed 22 porters, who had 25 kg of our luggage on their backs. We probably hired the right ones, thanks to Asad, because we were spared the infamous Balti porters' strikes.
From Khapalu, our planned route was: Surmo (hopefully with a cable car over the Shyok) - Gurtse - Parwa - Palit - Goma (last village in the Saltoro Valley before the Bilaphond glacier) - Ghyari - Chumik - (already on the glacier) - Naram - Ali Brangza - Bilaphond La - Lolophond - Siachen - over the Kondus glacier back to the Saltorovalley. In Surmo we encountered a nasty surprise: the cable car over the Shyok was broken. So we had to go back to Khapalu and cross the river on azakh, a raft made of inflated goatskins. Due to the heavy rain of the last few days, the river was extremely high. The Shyok was so swift that we were carried more than a km downstream on the 200 m-wide stream. This meant that we needed a lot of time to cross the river. The last zakh, on which there were three porters apart from Wolfgang and me, caught such a strong current and headwind in the middle of the river that the boys saw that they would not make it to the other bank and turned back. The next morning we also made it to the other bank, but there was no way we could go on as Wolfgang and Volker were sick. And then we were confronted with the next complication -the bridge over the Hushe river that was supposed to get us into the Saltoro valley did not exist. And so we first had to walk two days up into the Hushe valley, take the bridge there and then walk back down the same valley on the other bank.
Siachen at the confluence of Teram Shehr glacier
More and more time was lost. Finally we reached Goma, the last village before the glacier world. Instead of the planned four days' walk from Khapalu, it had become twelve! In fact, in the meantime we had already had great doubts as to whether we would make it to Goma at all. We had to shorten the planned route. We couldn't do the whole round with the return via the Kondusglacier, there was only enough time for Siachen and back via Goma.
From Goma it was only a short stage to Ghyari. We could see the terminal moraine of the Bilaphond glacier (the name means ‘butterfly’ in Balti and indeed we saw butterflies in the glacier area). For two days we struggled on the moraine. No stone sat properly. You step on a huge stone and it starts moving under you! Horrible. The moraine was a nightmare. Once the surface turned to ice, it was fine.At the prominent rock Ali Brangza, known to us from a photo by Hunter Workman, at the foot of the ascent to Bilaphond la, we set up a camp. Only now were we really in the glacier world of the Karakoram. On the 5450 m high Bilaphond la we set up the next camp, in exceptionally good weather. There we wanted to treat ourselves to a cup of coffee as a change from the permanent tea drinking. We had a can of vacuum-packedNescaféwith us. When I unscrewed the can lid, the cover was bulging. There must have been much more pressure inside than outside. I wanted to show Volker, Wolfgang and Asad and as I laughed and shook the can a little, the lid exploded. Almost all the contents flew out. So we had tea again.
On the pass we released 14 porters and continued to keep only the eight best. The next day we descended on the Lolofond glacier below 5000 m and had a free day for acclimatization. From there we could at least see the Siachen. It looked like a hundred-lane motorway. It seemed close enough to touch, but even though when we were going downhill, it still took three hours to reach it. At the confluence of Lolophond with the Siachen opposite the Teram Shehr glacier, we set up base camp at the spot where the Japanese had camped when they came to climb Singhi Kangri. They left some of their luggage behind, including a pair of skis. Opposite us, on the other side, we could make out the small meadow where the Italian geologist Giotto Dainelli spent a few weeks in the summer of 1930.
When the sky was clear, which was quite rare, our base camp was overflown by the Indian Air Force. Asad would get incredibly upset. "It is our territory! Who else is here?" "Wolfgang, Volker and me," was my response.
Bilaphond la, looking SW
The weather was miserable. Indira col was only about 30 km away but we had no time to reach it. We only could visit the meadow. It took us a good four hours to cross Siachen, which is about four km wide at that point. As also our supplies were getting short, we had to retreat. The most exciting moment on the retreat was again the crossing of the Shyok on the zakhs. This time we had the exposed film footage with us! If it ended up in the river, we would be ruined. According to the contract with WDR, there was no money until the finished film was accepted.
After the expedition
The film about our expedition was shown in the series ‘People, Countries, Adventures’ on WDR3 channel. As I mentioned, the submission to National Geographic was lost. So for me Siachenphotos ended up in a drawer until today.
In the summer of 1980, on my way to Leh, I happened to meet Bull in Kargil. It was perfectly natural for me to talk about our Siachen expedition. He didn't mention his expedition to Siachen in October 1978, just two months after us! He also forgot to mention his article inThe Himalayan Journal (Vol.37) in which he claimed the first ascent of Teram Kangri II, and he did not mention the three other members who were with him. Bullwas driven by one idea: ‘Who does Siachen belong to? India’. The ‘line of control’, as the ceasefire line between Pakistan and India was then called, ended near K12, which is southwest of Siachen. After Pakistan made the main ridge of the Karakoram the national border with China in 1963, ceding several thousand square kilometres of territory to China, Pakistan's national border now ran through the source of Siachen. This was never accepted by India. The easiest and shortest access to the Siachen and the eastern part of the Karakoram is the Nubravalley, which lies in Indian-controlled Ladakh.In the summer of 1981, Bull organized a 54 or 70 man army expedition to the Siachen, which climbed some of the 7000m peaks and skied down the Siachen from Indira col.
Back in 1978, beyond Skarduwe saw only one Pakistani soldier on our way toSiachen. It was our liaison officer Major AsadRaza.
I was back in Ladakh in the summer of 1984, just after the war broke out over Siachen. How many soldiers lost their lives on both sides is not made public either by India or Pakistan. My friend PaliKohli had made a career in the meantime and was the GOC somewhere. We maintained close contact. He told me that his son Moshe, who had by then become a captain, was on the Siachen in June 1987. He fell into a crevasse and luckily only escaped with a scare. In the meantime, Rajiv Gandhi had become Prime Minister of India himself. I wrote a letter to him suggesting that the exciting ice wilderness of East Karakoram be made an international ‘sporting area’ with access from both countries. The local villagers on the access routes would benefit. With the letter I sent a VHS video cassette of our film. After a few weeks, I received an impersonal reply. The Information Secretary to the Prime Minister let me know that "the Prime Minister appreciates your interest in Indian affairs". That was it.
Camp on Lolophond glacier
Crossing the Siachen on way to the meadow
Singhi Kangri (7202 m) was first climbed in 1976 by a Japanese expedition led by Harne Sato
I made the same suggestion to the then President of Pakistan Zia ul-Haq. He also received a VHS tape with our film and the same proposal. I did not receive a reply. Soon after, I met Mahmood Rahman the DC in Leh in the 70s, who now held the post of Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. He told me that the Pakistan government would be interested in talking about making Siachen an international sporting area. Zia ul-Haq died in the summerina helicopter crash in Kargil so this did not happen.
It was not until 2003 that a ceasefire was declared on Siachen. Both sides still maintain troops in the icy wilderness. The environmental damage caused by the troop presence was reported on by Swiss television in 2004.The quote from Wikipedia that concludes this essay shows that I was not the only one in the past to suggest that the fascinating ice wilderness around Siachen should be made an international peace park instead of a soldiers' grave.To date, nothing has happened. The Indian media reported in the recent past that it was possible for civilians to visit Siachen. It also reported in 2019 that "India deploys around 3000 soldiers at any given time on the glacier, where temperatures can drop to minus 60 degrees. Guarding the strategic glacier costs rupees 5 to 7 crore daily."
"The idea of declaring the Siachen region a Peace Park was presented by environmentalists and peace activists in part to preserve the ecosystem of the region badly affected by the military presence. In September 2003, the governments of India and Pakistan were urged by the participants of 5th World Parks Congress held at Durban, to establish a peace park in the Siachen region to restore the natural biological system and protect species whose lives are at risk. Italian ecologist GiulianoTallone, terming the ecological life at serious risk, proposed setting up of Siachen Peace Park at the conference. After a proposal of a trans-boundary Peace Park was floated, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) organized a conference at Geneva and invited Indian and Pakistani mountaineers Mandip Singh Soin, Harish Kapadia, NazirSabir and Sher Khan. The region was nominated for inclusion in the United Nations' World Heritage List as a part of the Karakoram range, but was deferred by the World Heritage Committee. The areas to the east and west of the Siachen region have already been declared national parks: the Karakoram Wildlife Sanctuary in India and the Central Karakoram National Park in Pakistan." (Wikipedia)
This is an impartial view of the Siachen region and the India Pakistan conflict on ownership with a plea by the author to convert the region into a Pace Park rather than it continuing tobe a ‘soldier’s‘ grave. The author Jaroslav Poncar has also published a book on his expedition, titled Siachen Expedition 1978.
Jaroslav Poncar is a travel photographer. His projects have taken him to Africa, Arabia and to Asia, especially to the Himalaya, Tibet, India, Burma, Cambodia and Afghanistan. In 1976 he took for the first time a panoramic camera to the Western Himalaya - the antique Russian FT-2 - and since that time he has specialized in panoramic photography.
A small team from The Himalayan Club Kolkata section spent some quality time in the Markha valley of Ladakh Himalaya during 22-31 August, 2021. During the first two days of their sojourn, the fivemember team conducted two free medical camps in the Markha and Hangkar villages. During this time, they also surveyed the socioeconomic conditions of the community.
The team moved to the Kang Yatse base camp on the 26 August. Here it split in two and in carry-camp and climb style, focussed attention on two different objectives—Reponi Malai Ri (6050m) and Kang Yatse II (6140m). While Dr Kallol Das and Niloy Chakraborty pushed towards Reponi Malai Ri, Partha Das, Amit Kumar Bal and Anindya Mukherjee busied themselves with the task of climbing Kang Yatse II.
Two consecutive bad weather days (28 and 29) eventually forced the two teams to take crucial decisions on their respective summit pushes. While the Reponi Malai Ri team found the complete whiteout conditions pointless in climbing further, the Kang Yatse team pushed irrespective of the compromised visibility and incessant snowfall. Finally on 30 August at around 11:00 am, Partha Das and Anindya Mukherjee reached the summit of Kang Yatse II. They climbed in alpine style without support from HAP, Guide or fixed rope. After reaching the summit the weather was a bit kind and the summiteers could capture documentary photos of the surrounding peaks.
High camp at around 5400 m and a red dotted line showing the ascent route on Kang Yatse II (6140 m)
Partha Das on the summit of KY II with THC flag. The connecting ridge between KY I (6400 m) and II visible behind to the left of Partha and the snowy pyramid of KY III (6310 m) located due south of KY I and the unnamed glacier (marked as ‘south glacier’ by Mike Ratty in THJ Vol 52)
On 31 August the whole team walked all the way to Chokdo by crossing the Kongmaru la. Thus ended a short, lightweight and socially responsible expedition.
Niloy Chakraborty (leader), Dr Kallol Das, Amit Kumar Bal, Partha Das and Anindya Mukherjee of The Himalayan Club Kolkata section went to the Markha valley for community work as well as climbing. They succeeded on Kang Yatse II. Base camp support was provided by Rigzin Chotak of Mero Expeditions.
See page 226
Lt Col Jay Prakash Kumar
It is hoped that this will open up new avenues for more such expeditions in the region which stills veils many unclimbed peaks like P 6608, P 6500 and P 6230. An effort to name these peaks and register them with Indian Mountaineering Foundation will go a long way in promoting adventure tourism and large scale mountaineering activities in the sector.
The southern Zanskar ranges are home to some of the most beautiful and virgin territories of the Greater Himalayas. There are unclimbed peaks primarily in Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur districts of Himachal Pradesh. The areas have remained comparatively untouched because of limited access, underdeveloped tourism and travel restrictions because of proximity to the sensitive northern borders with Tibet. The area has a diverse eco-system and people primarily dependent on miniature farming, apple cultivation, animal husbandry, daily wages and small scale tourism. Sumdo, 74 kms south of Kaza, is at the confluence of two major rivers Spiti and Pare-chhu. The river meets Satluj at Khab to form a major river, which flows down the valleys of Kinnaur and Rampur to exit into plains of Punjab. Reo Purgyil is the highest peak of Himachal Pradesh, rising from the Satluj gorge. Its adjoining peak is Leo Pargial (which is flatish and has been climbed often before). These peaks tower above the Tibetan plateau with a series of unnamed peaks to their north and south.
Approaching Chango Height
Four self-sustained separate expeditions by the Snow Saboteurs Team in Sumdo carried out extensive explorations to some of these areas under Lt Col Jay Prakash Kumar between Aug 2020-Jun 2021 to identify virgin trails, hidden valleys, mountain passes and unclimbed peaks and has been successful in attempting peaks like P 6401, P 6363, P 6335, P 6220, P 6164, P 6098, P 5873, P 5866, P 5974 and P 5985. In addition, other probable virgin peaks were identified on a stretch of approx. 50 kms of the range.
A 17-member team launched the first mission was to the north-east of Sumdo from 16 – 28 August 2020. Jogse is a rocky peak with glaciated covers on its eastern slope and a cornice on its top. The peak forms an arc joining with P 6335 (Jogse South) and P 6401 towards its south-east and finally meeting with an offshoot spur westwards to P 6220, popularly called Ibex. P 6401 further extends its main ridgeline towards east to join P 6500 and P 6608 and towards the south to meet Leo Pargial and Reo Purgyil.
Newlathang glacier separates Jogse and Ibex. The north-western slope of Jogse peak is rocky with no snow cover and is easy to climb. There is an excellent camping ground near the snout of the glacier with fresh water and a grassy patch. On the other hand P 5873 is like a pimple along the ridge to the north of Jogse. The spur further descends to meet Pare-chhu and then climbs towards Gya, which is located at tri-junction of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Tibet.
Starting from Sumdo, the team established two high camps on the mountain. On 27 Aug 2020, a ten-member team took the northwest slope of Jogse from camp 2 to successfully make the first ascent of the peak. The team then traversed to its northern slope slicing its glaciated northwestern slope to edge forward on its rocky knob and comfortably reached P 5873 at 11:30 am on 27 Aug 2020, thus making its first ascent.
Approaching Summit of Ibex
Areas to the east of Pooh, along the RaktiKhad valley, also remained dormant, except for some nomads visiting the lower areas for sheep grazing and collection of herbs. We identified two unnamed peaks in the sector i.e. P 5974 and P 5985, both unclimbed along the borders overlooking Shipki valley of Tibet. P 5974 is a rocky peak with partial snow cover on its northwestern slope, whereas P 5985 is fully covered with snow. The Snow Saboteurs Team launched the second mission from Sumdo with 11 members during 21 Sep-15 Oct 2020. The peaks located roughly 20 kms to the south of Leo Purgyil, offer a breathtaking view of Satluj flowing from Tibet and finally making its entry into India close to Shipki la through the southern base of Reo Purgyil. RaktiKhad glacier feed the valley with perennial nala, which flows from east to west to meet river Satluj near Pooh. An excellent camping ground lies near the snout of the Newlathang glacier. Three high camps were established on the mountain. The first objective P 5974 was approached from its southwest spur. It was a five-hour climb to the summit by an eight-member team 29 Sep 2020, another first ascent. The second objective P 5985 was attempted from its northwest face by six climbing members. The RaktiKhad glacier was a terrifying experience with jaw opening crevasses and formidable ice-walls. The team sneaked out of the glacier to climb its scree laden col, approx. one km to the north of the peak, from where it was a dead end. The team gained 5907 m on the peak so it still remains an unclimbed challenge for other enthusiasts.
Winters are severe in Zanskar ranges and the blizzards on the barren heights make any winter expedition, a daunting task. Chango Heights comprises of three prominent peaks i.e. P 5866, P 6000 and P 6215 and is located close to Chango village. The peak lies between DharPijong and DharKungrangmountain spurs, which are the offshoots of Purgyil massif’s main ridgeline to its east. ChalaDogpo glacier lies to its north and Chang Dogpo glacier lies to its south. Both the nalas flows west to east and meet Satluj near Chango. A 21-member Snow Saboteurs team conducted its first winter expedition from Sumdo to P 5866 during 28 Jan-10 Feb 2021. Two high camps were established on the mountain. On 7 Feb 2021, 15 members moved on a long and formidable 11-hour summit march amidst very strong cold winds, big boulders and a partial scree area before the summit. The summit is a conical small feature with thick layer of snow on top. There was a huge cornice on the spur leading towards P 6000 and P 6215, which could not have been negotiated during winter.
The most challenging was the first Ibex Massif expedition from 10 May to 9 Jun 2021. The mountain lies towards east of Sumdo on the Zanskar ranges to cover six peaks i.e. P 6401, P 6335 (Jogse South), P 6220 (Ibex), P 6164, P 6098 and P 5873. A 75-member team led by Jay made a remarkable journey to explore the untouched Newlathang valley and climb two virgin peaks and also opened a route to Ibex from its northwest face to scale it for the first time. All these six peaks form an arc circling Newlathang glacier to overlook Spiti valley to its north and northwest. Three high camps were established on the mountain. The first objective was Ibex, attempted in three small groups from its northwest route on 31 May, 01 Jun and 03 Jun 2021 to put 60 members successfully on top of it.
P 6164 and P 6098 fall along its northwest route overlooking the Newlathang valley and Jogse to the east – these were climbed for the first time. P 5873 was not a major challenge as the peak had been climbed by the team in Aug 2020. It was trekked easily through its frozen deep snow nala on its western slope by a 12-member team.
Then came the last phase of the mission i.e. the exploration of Newlathang glacier and the ultimate climb of two peaks P 6401 and P 6335 (Jogse South). The heavy snowfall in the region before the expedition further added to the incumbent challenge. On 5 Jun 2021, the glacier saw the first humans walk along its crevasse laden 10 km long narrow belly, having avalanche prone slopes to its north and south and a narrow stretch of rock fall from the northern face of Ibex. The final camp at the base of Jogse at 5963 m, made the final ascent within comfortable reach. P 6401 has an ‘ice-cone top’ completely covered with thick snow, whereas its adjacent peak P 6335, which is approx. two kms to its west, has a triangular rocky face with partial snow cover and protruding out into Tibet. The 12-member team bid for their summit attempt first on P 6401, steering through its northeast face to reach Newlathang col, from where it traversed on to its northwestern slope to sneak through its southern summit ridge to make the first successful ascent of the peak. It had been an incredible journey to this virgin peak, which which concluded on 6 Jun 2021. P 6335 was not far as the team could see the complete route from the top of P 6401, but they were exhausted. After some rest, they descended safely to the Newlathang col, a 500 m saddle of blue ice, to cross over and reach the forward edge of main ridgeline, and traversed onto the southeast summit ridgeline of Jogse peak. It was a gradual walk along the spur through rock band and partial snow line, as the team inched forward to reach the summit of P 6335 (Jogse South) on the same day.
With this ended the long and formidable exploration of southern Zanskar ranges. It is hoped that this will open up new avenues for more such expeditions in the region which stills veils many unclimbed peaks like P 6608, P 6500 and P 6230. An effort to name these peaks and register them with Indian Mountaineering Foundation will go a long way in promoting adventure tourism and large scale mountaineering activities in the sector.
During August 2020 to June 2021, when most of the world was reeling under the COVID 19 pandemic, a daring team was exploring a hitherto unexplored part of Zanskar. Under the leadership of Lt Col Jay Prakash Kumar, four self-sustained separate expeditions collectively called the Snow Saboteurs team identified virgin trails, hidden valleys, mountain passes and unclimbed peaks and successfully reached summits of peaks like P 6401, P 6363, P 6335, P 6220, P 6164, P 6098, P 5873, P 5866, P 5974 and P 5985. In addition, other probable peaks were identified on a stretch of approx. 50 kms of the range.
Lt Col Jay Prakash, SM is an acclaimed mountaineer of Indian Army with over 22 expeditions and 35 mountain peaks including Mt Everest. He has led some challenging expeditions like Thalaysagar, Reo Purgyil, Nun, Satopanth etc. An ex-paratrooper, sky diver, rock climber and a professional skier, Jay has been assigned exploratory missions on new routes in Himachal Pradesh. He has been conferred with many awards for his contribution in the field of mountaineering and adventure sports.
Based on evaluation of facts, interpretation of theories, and enlightening discussions with the knowledgeable Lindsay Griffin and Chewang Motup Goba (‘Gandalf the Grey’ of Ladakh mountaineering), I was convinced that Kang Yatse IV had remained unclimbed. Despite all my convictions, I decided to call our climb the first ‘documented’ ascent instead of simply ‘first ascent’.
The mystery of the disappearing twin
Although these days the mountain is generally referred to as ‘Kang Yatse or Yatze’ bylocals and tourists alike, while researching, I noticed that it used to be known as ‘Kang Yissay’ in the eighties and through the nineties. Setting aside the debate over the right spelling, one thingis certain—the mountain rises above others, standing at the head of the Markha valley.
In 1989, Dhiren Pania wrote, “The peak, Kang Yissay I (6400m), is the main peak with its subsidiary Kang Yissay II. The approach to the main peak is from north or northeast, while the approach for the subsidiary peak is from the northwest ridge. The difference in height between the main and the subsidiary peak is about 300m.”1 In this very report Mr. Pania also included a summary of ascents of both Kang Yatse I and II citing references from Indian Mountaineer, The Himalayan Journal and The Himalayan Club Newsletters.Mr. Pania’s report is one of the earliest and most detailed compendiums of ascents and attempts on the peaks Kang Yatse I and II, but its scope and vision was limited to only those two summits and the map of the area (existing then) continued to show only one peak - Kang Yissay 6400m.
Perhaps the most significant and detailed exploratory work (August 1992, August 1995) around Kang Yatse massif was archived by Michael Ratty2. In the very opening paragraph of his article Mr. Ratty pointed out, “comparing with what I could see with my map, I was struck by an inconsistency: two peaks were clearly visible (refer fig. 1), but the map showed only one: Kang Yissay 6400m. And when, next day, we emerged from the river’s gorge to the Nimaling plain,that was the only mountain to be seen. It is a handsome peak, with a long ridge separating two snowy shoulders, each with a summit and steep, icy north face. We returned to Nimaling in August 1995, to climb the mountain and solve the mystery of its disappearing twin. We found not one other peak, but many: Kang Yissay is just one of a compact and complex range of good looking snow and ice peaks, some over 6000m.”
Fig 1 - The four summits of Kang Yatse family from Hangkar (Sonam Yangjor)
By the end of his investigations Mr. Ratty believed that, “Kang Yissay forms an elongated 'U' shape; one arm of the U is the main peak itself, with our lower summit at the open end. The other arm is made up of the southern mountain, with the various tops, and enclosing a small southern glacier in the middle. Immediately beyond the U are other connected peaks both to the east and south. In his summary of climbing of Kang Yissay, Dhiren Pania refers to its two summits as Kang Yissay I and II. I suggest that the other summits directly connected by ridges to Kang Yissay be added. The peak joined to the main summit by the SE ridge would therefore be Kang Yissay III, and the main summit of the southern arm would be Kang Yissay IV.” (refer fig. 2)
At the very end of their 1995 expedition, Mr. Ratty and Trevor Willis explored access to the south glacier (via the Kongka Nongpo la) and made observations of a potential ascent route of Kang Yatse IV by its north ridge. He mentioned, “Nevertheless, this would be the best site for an ABC for anyone attempting Kang Yissay's southern twin (Kang Yissay IV), and there is a clearly visible rock ridge, not too steep, that appears to give a line of ascent to the summit ridge of the main peak.” Thus, in 1995, Michael Ratty not only recommended addition of two new peaks (III and IV) to the family of Kang Yatse, but also hinted on a possible climbing route on the mysterious southern twin of Kang Yatse.
Figure 2 - sketch map of Kang Yatse area, courtesy Michael Ratty, THJ Vol 52
Over the next 25 years, while Kang Yatse I3 and II kept seeing most ascents (apart from one traverse of the two summits by a large team from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in 20184) by their standard routes, KY III (6310m) saw its first ascent only as recently as August 2015, by Martin Moran, William Newsom and Simon Ridout by its northeast ridge. Martin was careful enough to prefix the word ‘probable’ before claiming the ‘first ascent’ of KY III5. The reason that forced Martin Moran to use the word ‘probable’ is a popular belief that most of the peaks across Ladakh’s popular tourist areas (e.g. Markha, Nubra and Pangong) have been climbed in the eighties by unregulated, agency operated trips. KY III received a second ascent6 (and a new variation) by a Portuguese team (2017, Paulo Roxo and Daniela Teixeira).
Our route of ascent, July-August 2021
Of mountains and ghosts
When I started looking into Kang Yatse IV,I too believedthat everything under the Ladakh sun had been climbed by some ghost.But after studying the patterns of the climbing parties (irrespective of their trip’s registration with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation) I have reached two inferences:
The ghost climbing always happened from traditional bases (as a natural choice of local travel agencies), which in Kang Yatse’s case is an area stretching from Nimaling plains to the upper cirque between Dzo Jongo (6280m) and KY III.
If any ghost (someone climbing without taking permission from the IMF)ever does a notable first ascent or even a new line, they make it a point to record it either in an international journal or a website. To substantiate this point,I would like to cite Santiago Sagaste’s climb of a new route on the north east face of Kang Yatse I in 20077. The true climber does not want their work to remain completely unnoticed or unacknowledged.
Thus, I realizedthe case of Kang Yatse IV simply does not fit into any of the above arguments as:
It has no direct access from the traditional base camp area as mentioned above. To touch the mountain (KY IV) from a traditional base, one either has to cross the Kongka Nongpo la (as suggested by Michael Ratty in 1995) or the col on the ridge between KY I and KY III (the one used by Martin Moran - the northeast ridge of KY III). KY IV lies beyond the scope and vision of travel operators and base camp support providers as they tend to lean towards easy solutions.
There is not a single ghost claim of either an ascent or exploration around KY IV online or in the living memory of the local trekking and climbing guides.
In case of people taking the unconventional route of the Langthang Chu valley (instead of the Nimaling route) and approaching the Kang Yatse massif from there,not a single instance of any such ventureexist within the living memory of the any of the muleteers or the senior citizens of Markha and Hangkar villages. During my last three visits to Markha valley (February, April and July 2021) I made enquiries.
Based on evaluation of facts, interpretation of theories, and enlightening discussions withthe knowledgeable Lindsay Griffin and Chewang Motup Goba (‘Gandalf the Grey’ of Ladakh mountaineering), I was convincedthat Kang Yatse IV had remained unclimbed. Despite all my convictions, I decided to call our climb the first ‘documented’ ascent instead of simply ‘first ascent’. I began planning exploratory trips in that direction, in groups of two-three friends and in a self-sustained manner. Our attempts to climb Kang Yatse IV failed in February and April. Finally on 1st August, 2021, we stood on the coveted summit.
The first two attempts-February and April 2021
In the last quarter of Ladakh's winter, during the last week of February and first week of March, 2021, Aloke Kumar Das and I decided to venture deep into the Markha valley with an eye of interest on the rarely climbed peak of KY III (6310m) and the almost unknown peak of KY IV (6130m) located due south and southwest of the more popular pair, Kang Yatse I (6400m) and II (6175m)8. We had plans to climb KY II as part of our acclimatization and then proceed to the exploratory task of the adventure via the Kongka Nongpo la (5080m). But one of Aloke’splastic boots tore apart at a crucial stage of the trip and a large spanner was thrown in the works. Thus, the tripculminated not on summits of mountains but on overcoming unexpected obstacles and unavoidable situations.
In April, 2021, a team of three (Sonam Yangjor, Stanzin Wangial and Anindya Mukherjee) planned to push a blitz attempt on Kang Yatse IV, this time directly from the depths of Langthang chu valley. The odds were in our favour upto the final camp (5400m), the top was within our reach with but a few more hours' worth of toil. But the night before our summit push, the skies were besieged by a fierce, battering snow storm. The onslaught of wind and snow seemed to get harsher by the hour, as frustration from the jeopardized ascent turned to fear for life. After holding our ground for 27 hours, we retreated below to safety. We had failed again, but what we had learned from this attempt was significant. We knew that we were on the right track,since we had reachedthe beginning of therocky summit ridge envisioned by Michael Ratty back in 1995. We decided to return to the mountain as soon as the second wave of the raging pandemic was over and complete the project.
The third attempt – July-August 2021
On 24th July, 2021, Sonam Yangjor, Stanzin Wangial and I9 drove to the road head from Leh. During the first phase of lockdown in 2020, an unmetalled road had reached Markha village and we were able to take full advantage of that on our two previous trips. But this time, with water levels of Markha river flowing dangerously high, we could only drive up to Sara. At Sara, we loaded two animals (a pony and a donkey) with our gear and gently walked to Markha. It was a full moon night at Markha; our campsite brought an enormous amount of relief, freedom and thankfulness in our cumulative senses. We had not only survived the sinistrous ‘second wave’, but were fortunate enough to undertake this mountain journey together. Over the next two days, we hiked in the midsummer lush greenery and grandeur of the Markha valleyand on 26th July entered the Langthang chu valley. After walking about three hours along the Langthang river, we decided to camp in a place called Tikyu (33°45'41.7"N 77°30'06.3"E, 4410m) and called it our base camp.
KY II and KY I from the summit of KY IV, looking NE and E
The next morning, Tsering Tashi, an old muleteer fromthe Markha village who had driven his two animals with us, bid us good bye with promises of picking us up from here on 2nd August. We were left with exactly seven days to explore the path ahead of us, climb the mountain and return. Without wasting a day, Stanzin Wangial and Iwent for a reconnaissance cum load ferry following an unnamed stream coming from the direction of the mountains to our southeast. After a three hour toil following the true left of this stream, Wangial and I reached a location from where we had our first glimpse of Kang Yatse IV and III. We felt somewhat elated as this foray had just reconfirmed the accuracy of our map reading. We agreed that this would be the place of our camp 1 and returned to base where Yangjor was waiting with a hearty meal cooked in his precious little pressure cooker. It started raining from 27thafternoon and continued almost all day on the 28th, forcing us to stay inside our tent. Thanks to the rain, we were now left with just six days to get the job done.
With a break in the cloud on the 29thmorning, we packed and left for camp 1 site (Camp 1,33°44'55.6"N 77°30'35.5"E, 4940 m). We reached in good time;and no sooner did we pitch our tent than the rains returned.Rain continued for the rest of the day and went on till early next morning, and thus effectivelyruining another functional day of our very tight itinerary. On 30th,apart from our soaking wet tent, the spirit of the team was dampened. As soon as the rain stopped in the late afternoon, we set out for another round of reconnaissance. Our original intention was to reach the head of the unnamed glacier (located due northwest of KY III and west of KY IV) and attempt KY IV by accessing the col between KY III and IV. By accessing this particular col, we not only hoped to climb KY IV butalso to possibly have a look at the unclimbed north ridge of KY III.
But now we were left with only three days out of which one had to be reservedfor descent and departure from the valley. In order to find a more direct route to KY IV, we decided to climb the watershed lying directly opposite the ridge connecting KY III and IV. After a couple of hours of uphill walking and scrambling we reached a perfect vantage point (5280m, 33°44'33.7"N 77°31'00.9"E). This vantage point not only gave us a glimpse into another unnamed glacier due southeast (along with its two beautiful unnamed and unclimbed peaks of 5970m and 6230m), it now presented a fantastic canvas to scrutinize the north ridge of KY IV. We noticed at the very northern tip of the north ridge of KY IV a snow dome, which if climbed up to by itsnorthwest face,allows access to the north ridge itself, followed by a traverse of the same for about 1.5 kms. With a predictable daily overnight rain pattern established by now, we realized that this ‘northwest face-north ridge’ route would demand a long and tedious, but promising climb.A full day of climbing would pack in the ascentand descent, before nightfall and possibly another spell of rain.
Looking south from our summit - view of KY III, KY IV south summit and ridges marked accordingly (Stanzin Wangial)
Looking south and southwest from summit (Stanzin Wangial)
31st July dawned cloudy, and by the time we had packed our stuff and started walking, it had started to rain again. But we had decided that the rain was not going to jeopardize our summit push. We had to make an attempt for the summit on the 1st of August no matter what. Therefore on 31st July, after a slow, wet and heavily laden progress along the unnamed glacial stream we decided to make camp II, (our summit camp) at an altitude of 5180m (33°44'46.3"N 77°31'05.0"E) .Out of excitement for a potential first ascent within our grasp, we could hardly sleep that night. To our great surprise and relief, the clouds lifted during the night and we could see the stars for the first time in a week. On 1st August, 2021, around 5:00 am we started our uphill climb towards the summit of KY IV.
The first documented ascent of Kang Yatse IV
Within the first two hours of walking we were already scaling the steeper slopes of the northwest face. The beginning of the northwest face was loose scree, typical of Ladakh Himalaya, followed by a section of shattered ribs of rocks, after which the climb proceeded up an easy angled snow slope.We were on top of the north ridge at an altitude of 5800m by noon, and we were engulfed by a spell of dense fog and cloud. Even then we could make out the long north ridge lying ahead of us, with anoccasional glimpse of the summit dome. After nearly a kilometre of traversing the north ridge, we came face to face with a series of gendarmes. We climbed down a bit on the west face to detour the gendarmes and came back up on the north ridge successfully. Finally thesummit looked within reach,beyond a small overhanging rocky outcrop that posed as the last obstacle. I climbed this section and Yangjor and Wangial followed. Within the next few minutes we were on the summit of Kang Yatse IV 6130m (33°44'24.6″N 77°32'25.9"E).It was past 2:00 pm and we were still engulfed in thick fog. We felt so disappointed with the weather and the view that we decided to do something I would never recommend others ever do. We decided to wait for the fog to disappear. The knowledge that daylight extended almost up to 7:45pm and the assumption that we would be able to get down the tricky sections well before it got dark were incited us to wait. It took two hours of waiting when the clouds finally parted and we could get glimpses of the surrounding - Kang Yatse II, I, their entire west face, their southern glacier, the ridge connecting KY I with KY III, KY III, the south summit of KY IV, the unnamed peaks beyond the west ridge of KY III; everything became visible. We laid and spread the prayer flag we had carried to the summit and tried to capture the mountains in photographs as quickly as possible, should they fade away behind the imminent fog once again. It was past 4:00 pm and we were still on the summit. We started the tedious descent- the same traverse of the gendarmes, individual turn by turn belays on short sections of rocks, and careful yet seemingly endless stepping on loose screethat brought usback to our summit camp at around 8:30pm. We were drained of physical energy but our senses were overflowing with satisfaction and joy. We had just completed the first ‘documented’ ascent of Kang Yatse IV, alpine style and with minimal impact on the fragile ecosystem. We were now ready to head back home.
The journey back to Leh
On 2nd August, we packed our summit camp and walked down to Tikyu. After a few hours, to our joy Tsering Tashi arrived along with his two faithful animals. We lit a campfire with dried horse dung by the river Langthang that evening and enjoyed the Chhang Tsering Tashi had kindly brought along for us. On 3rd August, we double marched down to the Markha village and on the following day, after walking almost up to Skiu—and managing to clear a road block with a bulldozer working in a nearby field—we could drive back to Leh before 8:00 pm. Next morning, on my flight back to Kolkata, I recalled the following lines by Dr. Howard Somervell, “I have found, in common with many others, that a climbing expedition with one or two companions and no terrific objective can give a more real and serene enjoyment than you are likely to get from a large and spectacular attempt on a major peak.”10
On 1st August, 2021, a team of three Indian alpinists made the first documented ascent of Kang Yatse IV (6130 m) in Ladakh. They approached the mountain from its west, via the Langthang Chu valley. Using a couple of days for reconnaissance and adopting a carry, camp and climb style, the trio first climbed the NW face and then the north ridge to reach the north summit 6130m of the identical twin summit of KY IV.
Team: Sonam Yangjor, Stanzin Wangial and Anindya Mukherjee. Duration: 24th July to 4th August, 2021. Grade: AD as per IFAS.
The team is grateful for the folks who responded positively to their crowdfunding campaign and others who provided valuable information when it was needed.
Anindya Mukherjee is an active mountaineer and adventurer with a penchant for exploration. He has been on more than 35 mountaineering expeditions across the Indian Himalaya and has quite a few first ascents to his credit. More than anything else, he is deeply interested in the lives of peoples that he meets across the globe. He writes about his adventures regularly in a regional newspaper in West Bengal. He is a life member of THC and the recipient of the inaugural Jagdish Nanavati Award for Excellence in Mountaineering.