Disappointment and Redemption in The Kashmir Himalaya

Arun Mahajan: It was wonderful to hike in the expansive plain but still be ringed by snowcapped peaks. How amazing the scenery was from the top! We were off the Himalayan crest and the mountains seemed more rounded and gentler than the foreboding peaks of Zanskar/Kishtwar.

August  2016

(Team member names in initials for their privacy)

We had an ambitious plan of climbing Hagshu (6515m) by the unclimbed East Ridge. Hagshu is situated in the Kishtwar-Zanskar region, one of the most spectacular peaks in the Indian Himalaya. Owing to its hazardous and treacherous curve according to official record previously the peak has been climbed only 4 to 5 times. Interestingly, the earlier two times happened within a very short span of time and that too, via new routes of the dark and forbidden north face one of which got the Piolet d’Or for Marko Prezelj and his team.

Come end-July, I came across the  strong team of LS and the husband/wife team of KA and LE and 3 climbing experts  Sherpas/HAPs, cook and our IMF designated Liaison officer (LO) at our wonderful hotel in Leh. After 2 days of driving, via Kargil and two short days of trekking with our team up to  the drainage of a stream emanating from the Hagshu glacier got us to a spectacular base camp. We had fantastic glimpses of Hagshu; every bit was as spectacular as the Matterhorn.

Hagshu from near BC

After resting for a day at BC, we set out to establish ABC on the glacier near the toe of the East Ridge. No sooner did we get to ABC than the ominous sky started pouring snow. We saw that even after covering a quite considerable length of distance to get to ABC, our destination C1 was still far from us.

Approaching ABC in bad weather

While staying in tents we were listening to the weather forecast and sounds of rock fall back and forth.  The sound of the rock fall was approaching from the northern part interestingly the route to C1 is also directed towards the north. Our hearts were quivering at the prospect of staying for at least a day or more. Finally LS arrived and said to us that the forecast was not good and our option was to either to wait or moving back to BC the next day and then head out the day to the trailhead and get to Leh, where we might get another permit to attempt some other peak in the Changtang where the weather was usually stable. This instilled hope in us and we considered that it would be a better idea, to return early and avail another opportunity of climbing another peak instead of waiting and trying for Hagshu with the apprehension of failing and retreating from higher up.

So we retreated to BC and then got back to Akshow and then we went to Leh where we spent 2 days for acclimatizing and going for walks including some ridge climbing at the top of KhardungLa (pass).

Acclimating on the Kardung La

KA left as he had urgent business back home leaving the 3 of us for the next stage. With a smaller setup, we traveled to the Changtang plateau to attempt the peak LS had secured permits for. A day’s journey took us to near Tso Moriri and from there we veered off towards a dirty road to the drainage of another stream. The next day, we hiked up the drainage while our party (1 cook and 1 HAP) followed us with a fewer number of load laden horses. It was wonderful to hike in the expansive plain but still be ringed by snowcapped peaks. How amazing the scenery was from the top! We were off the Himalayan crest and the mountains seemed more rounded and gentler than the foreboding peaks of Zanskar/Kishtwar. Finally, we got to a verdant plain from the vicinity of thje plain a peak was partially visible. Its northern face looked steep, but its western slopes were screed and gently ended in a mile or so away from camp. This was our BC at 5508m.

Our shy peak
  • LS suggested that we should go for the summit in the next morning with an alpine start. This caused a little worry to me. Today we were going to climb a 6000+ peak which was the highest in our entire trip and it was a daunting task.  The next day, 14th Aug, 2016, we started walking at 5am. LS, LE and me. It was slow going for me. Getting to the base of the climb meant following the stream up and then traversing on the moraine up to a dry glacier.
  • And around a tarn and we were the snow. The north face loomed endlessly in the front. We roped up and LS led the way. After 4 pitches, we got to a rock buttress. Here LS took the lead and we belayed him simultaneously on two ropes and then, when he got to an anchor, he would belay the both of us up.
Early pitches

I think we climbed at least 10 to 12 pitches from this point. LS did a wonderful job using such natural protections as he could since he had a Spartan rack (some screws, some rock pro and a bunch of slings). This was a fine mixed climbing, perhaps AD standard. But at that altitude and pitch after pitch, it took everything from me and LE. It seemed there was no end and one particular pitch had LS turning a corner and we gingerly turned the corner ourselves.

Mixed climbing higher up

There we were greeted by a wonderful sight, LS sitting down among the rocks and only a gentle slope was in the front. It was 4pm then. We got back to the single rope here. Even the mighty LS was tired as we crawled to the ridge top and there was a most sinuously curved ridgeline that we would have to go over. Every step was hard and finally LS called a halt. We were at the top!

Summit. That is me kneeling. LE is next to me and LS took the picture

And it was 5pm. 12 hrs to get to the summit via the north face by a direct route and that too, in alpine style. LS gave me a small bar of Cadbury chocolate as my stocks were exhausted.  The wind blew away the wrapping before I could catch it. There was no evidence that anybody had ever set foot here. LS said that his wrist altimeter was reading 6437m / 21114 ft. We thought at that point that we had done the first ascent. We left no sign of our presence there, except the small wrapper of Cadbury chocolate left somewhere there. We decided to come down the west side and remained roped till we passed the snow line and then unroped and started to walk for BC. It was long and tortuous and I had to be careful least I might   fall (I have a twice-surgically-reconstructed ACL in my left knee) and this was all the more interesting in my state of tiredness and I had to give it a lot of focus. The lights of BC shone in the dark (it was dark by now) and I could see LS reaching BC first and then LE and shortly, I too stumbled in. It was a 15 hr day. I was so tired that despite being hungry, it was hard to put any food down but I managed to get in some soup and a lot of water the happy cook and Sherpa so solicitously provided in their warm kitchen tent.  Alpine style first ascents by the direct north face of a 6000m+ peak in the Himalaya. All these words and my name next to it…had a nice ring.

We got back to Leh the day after and right away repaired to one of the fine book stores there and bought the Ladakh Sur topo maps to identify our peak there. Our peak is marked as 6380m (near Tso Moriri) but we know that it was 6437m as per LS’s altimeter.

Our peak in the Ladakh-Sur topo map

Later conversations with LS via email indicated that perhaps this peak might have been climbed previously. There was no cairn or marker on the summit. However, we still think that perhaps our north facing direct line could have been a new route. Even if it wasn’t, the trajectory was enthralling for some great peaks and for its huge adventure quotient. The most enduring image of this climb in my mind is that of a Lammergier that we saw somewhere in the middle of this climb. When I had looked up I saw the incredibly huge bird, high in the sky and with the sun behind it making its wings look like translucent. Indeed It resembled those gigantic  birds shown in the movie Avatar.

Words and photos: Arun Mahajan

About the author:  Arun Mahajan was born in Bombay/Mumbai and spent his formative days there. He did some trips in the Sahyadris but regrets not having done more. He then migrated to the USA and now lives in Palo Alto, California.He spent many happy days hiking and climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and after moving to California in 1994, began an enduring love affair with the rugged Sierra Nevada range and over the past 20+ years in California he has been to the top of a few hundred summits in that range and several others in the Cascades as well. Other than that, he has been on climbing trips to Mexico, Ecuador, the Alps in France and Switzerland and the Pamir. He has also been on 9 expeditions to the Himalaya, twoof them in Nepal and seven in India. He indulges in many additional facets of mountaineering such as rock and ice climbing and both alpine and telemark skiing. His list of failing on summits is now fast catching up with his successes but he aspires to always be in a state where his quest for adventure never subsides.

Email: arun.mahajan@att.net

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