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25th Feb: Sitting Ducks - a near-miss on Norwegian ice
17th - 21st March: Strength through Misery - Scotland's last winter burst
28th Apr-21st May: Kalapani Pioneers - three weeks in unclimbed Himalaya
25th February: Sitting Ducks – a near-miss on Norwegian ice
Leading the steep WI5 pitch on Sitting Ducks Climb (photos: Pete Buswell)
Despite a combined age of 130 I sensed that Dennis and Pete were the types who liked an adventure. I had spotted a big lick of green ice up in a bowl at 1200m in the upper reaches of Stondalen. The icefall looked vertical for at least 60 metres and was perched 300 metres above the access road, presenting a serious approach walk by Norwegian standards. We could reasonably guess it was unclimbed and the boys were immediately enthused. After three days with temperatures at -10degC or lower a steady deterioration was forecast for our day with gales and snowfall due by early afternoon. We went for a 7am departure from Aurland on the reckoning that we could be up and off the route before anything nasty happened.
Den and Pete are Staffordshire lads and thus inclined to address each other by the endearment “duck”. I had believed this familiarity was only appropriate to members of the opposite sex, but clearly this rule had long been abandoned in the Potteries.
“You all right, duck.” “Do you want to go first, duck.” “I’m not happy here, duck.”
I had been subjected to a barrage of ducks all week.
We parked by the Stondalen hydro-plant and broke a deepening trail diagonally up 40deg approach slopes to gain a ramp under a cliff band. Leaving our ski poles here, I tied on to our two ropes and ran the rope 40 metres up the ramp to a belay point in an icy niche. The technical difficulty barely warranted a rope, but it felt right to take precautions as the exposure increased. A leaden sky was now issuing desultory waves of fine snow. We moved together for a further 80 metres with an ice screw as a running anchor until a steeper tongue of ice demanded proper pitched climbing. The tongue led into a miniature amphitheatre under the main fall. True to impressions the fall was largely vertical and formed of glassy smooth ice, without any niches or ledges.
We could now feel the wind gusts as the snowfall intensified. The bad weather was arriving early. An ominous atmosphere, resonant with so many stormy days back in Scotland, took command. I racked the gear, put Den on belay and Pete on camera duty and hastened to the task. I romped the first 20 metres placing only two ice screws. At this stage the climbing was utterly brilliant and I felt in total control. Then the angle rose from a pleasant 80 degrees into a vertical groove of sheer bullet-proof ice.
Clinging tight to the axe handles my fingers began to lose circulation, bringing the insidious pain of wounded nerve-ends. Fighting the fire, I bridged up the groove, shaking out after each upward lurch and wishing I’d bothered to attach safety lanyards to my axes. At such a juncture it isn’t at all helpful to think of the consequences of a fall, but adding in rope stretch I was reckoning on a plunge of at least 10 metres should I relinquish my grip. This was no place to break a leg, so I battled the stress and placed an ice screw. My spectacles were now completely caked in snow. I swiped them off and suffed them down my jacket, restoring vision, albeit blurred.
The crisis passed as the angle eased back off vertical and a tingling flush of blood returned to my fingers. I made my belay up left on an ice pulpit about 15 metres below the top, then realised that either Den or Pete could have quite a swing if they came off. They climbed about five metres apart, their figures shrouded by spindrift. Grunts, expletives and several “ducks” were exchanged between the pair. Den slipped once at the exit from the crux, Pete got up the crux but managed to fall off completely at the point of maximum swing potential five metres below the stance. He clattered under a fringe of icicles and became entwined with a six foot stalactite in a perilous dance macabre. The icicle snapped and Pete was left hanging. “Did you see that?”, he exclaimed. There were no more friendly “ducks”, but at least his expletives rhymed.
Preparing the first abseil in full-bore spindrift
Martin leading the entry pitch as the snowfall commences
From this position I feared he might need a hoist but the episode seemed to have an energising effect. He clawed his way back to the line, reached the stance and adopted a commanding role as I contrived a massive rope tangle when transferring the lapped coils. For 15 minutes we worked feverishly to unhitch several knots. At times we could barely see each other in the enveloping spindrift gusts. The storm had arrived early and precious hours had passed. Fresh snow drifts were building on every ledge.
I hurried up right to the top of the fall and made a solid ice thread where a single 60 metre abseil just touched down at the bottom. Half a foot of fresh snow added to the knee-deep drifts that we had encountered on the approach pitches, and this new snow had a strangely cohesive texture despite its softness. There was a big temptation to unrope and plough down the lower ramp as quickly as possible to quit the storm. Intuition suggested that we should keep abseiling all the way back to the sticks, and on the final abseil I triggered a surface slide of snow several inches thick.
Having regained the ski sticks and standing in the shelter of an overhang I felt sufficiently secure to take off my rucksack and start packing while Den and Pete abseiled down to me. “Thank goodness, we are off”, I thought. Almost immediately the sky darkened and a fierce blast of wind hit me, knocking me back on the abseil ropes. The gale was followed by a ten second pummelling of snow. We’d been hit by an airborne avalanche. When the air cleared I looked down and my rucksack had disappeared, blown straight off the cliff. I was glad I hadn’t detached myself from the rope or I might have gone with it.
Den and Pete arrived in states of great excitement. They too had been hit by the avalanche. Now, I was in a double panic. My sack contained much of value, but to search for it I’d have to scour the approach slopes, now loaded with snow. I reckoned that we’d be safe from any further airborne blasts for half-an-hour or so. We coiled the ropes and I scouted a route off the slopes. A rib of ground with small trees provided the safest descent. I guided Den and Pete over, then went back to the slopes beneath the climb. I was convinced that my sack would be buried in debris from the avalanche, so I poked about in the surface drift, which promptly avalanched to a depth of six inches, almost taking me down-slope with it. I twisted out of the slide, losing a ski pole in the process.
What a dilemma! Either I abandon a rucksack containing a thousand pounds’ worth of kit or must risk getting avalanched. Attachment to possessions overrode the urge for self-preservation. I recommenced my probing. The decision wasn’t quite as irrational as it seems! From security of a rock island I met short cautious forays in all directions. Nothing happened. I went out further and began digging around in the snow. Nothing happened. I then commenced sweep searches back and forwards. After twenty minutes it dawned on me that there was actually no avalanche debris on the slopes. The snow was smooth and had none of the lumpiness of an avalanche talus.
The only hope was that the sack had been blown much further down the mountain. I rejoined Den and Pete halfway down to the base, and we scoured every dark lump of rock or grass, until at the very foot of the slope I spied the sack.
With the bag recovered and with the avalanche risk quitted, a sense of euphoria took hold of our party. We left the mountain to its maelstrom and hurried back to the car, where Pete realised he’d lost one of his axes. Back up the tracks we tramped, and on a second search he found his tool. At last we could take flight and head back to Aurland for beer and pizzas.
The boys seemed thrilled by the whole experience. I was less sanguine. After a winter light on snow and free of objective risk, we’d been lured into a trap. At least we’d escaped intact, but the outcome might have been different but for some fine judgements. For me the experience was as sobering as it was inspiring. There was no problem naming the route. “Sitting Ducks Climb” now sits proudly on the pantheon of Stondalen’s finest ice lines!
Route description: Aurland; Upper Stondalen: Dauersnosi
Sitting Ducks Climb 200m III, WI5 *
Up right from the craggy nose of Dauersnosi a steep icefall forms in a recess, prominently in view from the hydro-plant. Beware of avalanches after fresh snow. Park above the hydro plant before the road twists up and through a tunnel into Rausmusdalen. Walk up a boulder-filled hollow, then climb diagonally up right for 150m to a ramp under a rock band. Easy snow-slopes with short steps lead up left for 120m. Climb a steep tongue of ice (WI4) or make a detour round to the left to gain a bowl beneath the main fall. Climb the fall in one big 55m pitch (WI5) up left and a shorter pitch (15m, WI4) back right to the top. Abseil from here (1 x 60m gains the top of the bowl and 3 x 60m lead back down the ramp).
A longer but easier angled line of ice ramps to the right of the icefall offers a second route option here.
17th – 21st March: Strength through Misery – Scotland’s last winter burst
The winter of 2017 passed with barely a whimper. We had enjoyed long spells of dry weather, snowfalls were light and short-lived and climbing opportunities were largely restricted to higher level ridge and buttress climbs. Then, as March arrived, when most clients believed the snows would altogether disappear and our courses were barely half-filled, true Winter returned. So often this happens. These lambing snows combine with longer days and more generous sunlight to give splendid mountaineering conditions.
If asked who are my best clients, I choose those who are decisive in action, book early, stick with their plans, arrive in a mood of positivity and take what the weather gives without complaint. Dave and Sue Pugh and Carl Hess had been regulars since 2012. Dave and Sue completed the Munros in a three-year campaign after I’d guided Sue up the In Pinn. Dave had climbed the Matterhorn with me last summer in a round trip from a camp at Schwarzsee thereby avoiding extortionate Hornli Hut charges – not bad at 67 years of age. Carl and Dave had recently completed our technical winter climber course. For Yorkshire-folk this bunch were notable in their largesse towards an ageing mountain guide, either that or they’ve got some good pension policies!
They arrived in mid-March for four days with a new recruit to their group, Lynne, a retired physiotherapist. Dave and Sue are great organisers and have assembled an informal club of walking enthusiasts in North Yorkshire, some of whom are allowed to progress to the Scottish hills after passing initiations in the Lakes and Dales. One of their fringe members, a cynical soul, described the spirit of the cabal as “Strength through Misery”.
The first day of their visit was a 1:1 guiding trip with Sue to utilise a Christmas guiding gift voucher. She had taken a serious tumble on Blaven the previous year, resulting in a helicopter rescue. Someone – I think it was Dave – had the bright idea that a day out with me would be the perfect antidote to the shock of the fall. We had provisionally earmarked Ledge Route on Ben Nevis as a suitable mountaineering challenge. I gave Sue the weather prediction – steady snowfall for most of the day – and noted the long journey-time from Lochcarron – fully expecting a change of plan, but no; I got an instant response. “Ben Nevis, please!”
The weather materialised exactly as forecast. More people were coming down from Ben Nevis than were going up. We trudged up to the base of the route, as large snow-flakes drifted down in increasing volume, and dodged a soft snow-slough at the base of No 5 Gully. With the new snow already a foot in depth and mindful of a recent avalanche epic in Norway, I felt distinctly unhappy. I was glad to quit the gully and get on to the relative security of Ledge Route. The climb proceeded in misted silence, save for the odd muffled shout from a party across on the Douglas Boulder.
At the summit of Carn Dearg the temperature rose five degrees in as many minutes. The snow turned to rain, and I made the questionable decision to descend the north ridge of the mountain as opposed to a circuitous route via the Tourist Path and half-way lochan. Sue was subjected to a harrowing hour – soft wet slab over hard neve snow, followed by endless steep screes covered with inches of damp snow. By the time we reached the Allt a’Mhulinn we were sufficiently drenched to laugh at the added ignominy of a thigh-deep river crossing. To my relief Sue seemed immensely satisfied at this beast of a day.
Joy after Misery - our glorious hour on the Cluanie Ridge - Carl and Lynne
Sue on the upper arete of Ledge Route, Ben Nevis
Back in Torridon the snow still lay thick to low levels. Joined by Dave, Carl and Lynne we headed up to Beinn Eighe the next morning. We found one patch of old neve snow under the fresh coating near to the top of Spidean Coire nan Clach, so could do some avalanche hazard evaluation and ice axe arrest before heading out east towards the Black Carls pinnacles. The weather steadily cleared to give an afternoon of bracing splendour. The Carls were in true Alpine condition and I gave Dave and Carl the opportunity to lead the girls across on their own independent rope while I supervised operations. Cast into the spotlight the fellas were initially reluctant to take control, but with some hectoring from their guide, they eventually realised their responsibilities. It is a delight when a newcomer to Scottish winter mountaineering gets an inspiring day to begin. Lynne clearly loved the whole affair right through to the exit march through the Allt a’Chuirn pinewoods.
Sunday morning brought none of the joys of the Black Carls. Steady penetrating rain marshalled our approach plod towards Sgurr an Lochain in Glen Shiel. We sploshed and squelched up endless slopes of grass and slime. At the shoulder Sue and Dave succumbed to the temptations of lunch at the Cluanie Inn and left us to our woes. Cold rain soaked my gloves and chilled my hands. I had one pair of dry mittens in my bag to sustain my spirit through gully, summit and descent. To preserve that crumb of comfort I walked bare-handed all the way to the base of Flying Gully on the north face. A dirty avalanche slide from the mouth deterred any probing in that direction and we continued to a shorter grade II gully higher on the face. My exposed fingers burnt and glowed but somehow kept their circulation, and then we felt a drying in the air. The front had passed and the wind was swinging to a more palatable nor’wester. On went the mitts, and I clambered over a little cornice to meet a cheek-scrubbing blast of hail on the summit.
Then, the clouds parted and shafts of warm sunlight lit up the mossy swards and lingering snow-fields. We walked back over a second Munro, Sgurr a’Doire Leathain, the wind behind and snow firm and the world in glorious unison. Perhaps this was “elation through misery” and I was almost disappointed that the day ended so soon. We were back on the road at 3.30pm.
Traversing the Black Carls of Beinn Eighe - Dave, Lynne, Sue and Carl
A final day with the Yorkshire foursome took us back to Torridon and Liathach. Squalls with winds in excess of 60mph were predicted by the Mountain Weather Information Service. One could never accuse the perpetrator of this forecast of excessive optimism. We opted to shelter in Way Up Gully in Coire Dubh Mor. The snow was solid and once more Dave and Carl were given rope-minding duties. Squalls there were, but with nothing like the frequency or severity predicted. From the gully exit we continued to the summit of the peak and returned along the eastern ridge.
While the Yorkshire team could now relax I was only four days though a six-day stint. At 8am next morning I met my new client, Neil, in Strathcarron. Winter wasn’t giving up just yet. Blizzards to low levels were on the card and for once the mountain forecast didn’t exaggerate. At 64 years old Neil is close to completion of a remarkable and entirely pointless campaign to climb every peak in Britain with a couple of contours of supremacy over their surrounds – Dawsons I believe they are called. There are 2400 of these excrescences and Neil has done 2000 to date.
Now he wanted to recapture some of the thrills of past winter climbs. Grade III Scottish climbs on a wild day are a different kettle of fish to hill-top wandering. The Right-End Buttress on Fuar Tholl seemed the only local choice with a semblance of security. Throughout our laboured approach powder snow slides drifted down the mountain’s South-East Cliff – one every minute. These playful veils harboured a growing avalanche threat. I began to feel uneasy but knew my buttress well enough to believe we could get up and out safely. Neil did well to surmount the tenuous lower pitches. Compact slabby rock deceives and then repels any frontal attack. You have to wander and probe to find the climbable weakness in each little sandstone tier. Neil struggled to find purchase in the deeper snows of the upper pitches. Vigorous thrusts of the axes and core strength were required to overcome the prevailing mush.
Windslab snow coated the final 40 metres. I was glad of my prior knowledge of each good belay anchor and topped out at the only point in the corrie rim that was free of fresh cornice. Five hours had passed since we roped up. Already the time was past 4pm. The summit offered scant salvation. A 40mph wind greeted my arrival. I placed an ice axe belay and hunkered down in the snow, my hood drawn tight against my pinched cheeks and eyes clamped shut against the whirling blasts of spindrift. Neil seemed to take an eternity to get up the final pinch. My bum was ice-cold by the time he emerged from the depths. With little ado we shivered and shuffled over to the south-east ridge descent
Hopes of a fireside night were fast dwindling. Neil stuttered and stumbled, his thigh muscles spent. On one fall he broke both his trekking poles. At this pace I couldn’t get myself warmed up. Despite the urge to charge ahead I needed to encourage my companion. For Neil the day was clearly a watershed experience, a realisation of one’s declining powers while the mountain remains fearsomely strong. Though just five miles from my home we were enveloped in a world where survival is the sole imperative. That thought gave some inspiration as we slithered down the final slopes to the pines and rhododendron thickets above Achnashellach. We reached the railway line ten minutes before the evening train was due to pass. Thank goodness I remembered the timetable.
The pause allowed us to reflect. Battered and weakened we cancelled our plans to climb the next day. We might have reflected on the day’s enterprise as a misjudgement, yet we do need to meet our limits from time to time. The motto “Strength through Misery” will get you a long way in the mountains but it won’t work for ever!
28th Apr-21st May: Kalapani Pioneers:
Above: Approaching the summit of Snowcock Peak 5520m - Nanda Devi behind
Right: Gav abseiling off 5685m Rukmini Peak after the 1st ascent
Welcome to Drizzleland: Delhi had just suffered a blast of 40 deg C + temperatures but our arrival induced a distinctly Scottish feel to the Indian weather. On the Meerut road we passed a water-park attraction inspirationally named “Drizzleland, setting the tone for the damp chill that enveloped us up in the Alaknanda valley.
“Hug your kids when in home, belt them when in car” proclaimed the latest safety slogan of the Border Roads Organisation on the National Highway from Rishikesh to Joshimath . The road was quiet, awaiting the opening of Badrinath and Kedarnath temples that would herald the start of the pilgrim season. By Chamoli we could see fresh snow on the hilltops and we sought sanctuary in down jackets on disembarking at the roadhead of Lyari in the Kalpeshwar valley. A 30-minute walk brought us to the gates of the valley’s most salubrious lodging, the Kalp Palace Hotel. A “de-luxe” stay was promised. Our French recruit, Stephanie, dived straight into the shower room in naïve expectation of hot water for her first hair shampoo, while we shivered on the terrace pondering the likely depth of snow at the forest margins. Dinner surpassed expectations, a delicious concoction of home-grown vegetables. We assumed that our greens did not include any of the copious fronds of marijuana plants that trellised every wall and fence in the village.
The Valley of Oaks: Our team of 16 horses arrived at the Palace at 8.30am. The horsemen were doubtful that their beasts could handle the crossing of the 3950m Mainwa Khal. The pass was the only way to get into the Kalapani valley. Two days of fine weather were forecast for a leisurely climb to Bansi Narayan temple but more snow was due on the day of the crossing.
Our only insurance against the failure of horse transit lay in a group of four teenage porters that I had recruited from the nearby Nandakini valley – Puskar, Manoj, Madan and Laxman. According to my plan these boys would ferry loads wherever the horses feared to tread. With his goatee beard, long scarf and red leather jacket Puskar looked fit to grace the hipster bars of Chelsea. What Manoj lacked in style he surpassed with cheek and impudence. “Good morning, sirrr….. how are you?” he crowed at every meeting. Madan was the dopey one, “Battery sir; solar charger”, his sole English phrases as he waved his defunct mobile phone in my face. Laxman, was even younger than the others, a probable absconder from school exams. The deal was eight hundred rupees each a day and as much as they could eat. We ended up owing them a great deal more!
Our way took us over a 3000m col to Kalgot village, then up a beautiful valley adorned with banj oak trees and a dancing rivulet of snowmelt. The rhododendrons were just coming into flower at Bansi Narayan. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the presiding deity of these ranges. We perched on the doorway plinth and indulged some peak spotting. Hathi Parbat, Dunagiri, Changabang, Nanda Devi and Trisul were all in view.
Peak-spotting at Bansi Narayan temple
Kalgot village - our first camping spot on trek
Shovelling Snow over the Mainwa Khal: After two days of bliss came the crunch. The ascent to Mainwa Khal was only 400 metres over a 2km distance, yet there were intermittent patches of soft spring snow. We set out early with shovels to dig out a firm path. In the first flush of morning the Kalapani peaks stood proud on the northern horizon, a heavenly host of peaks in fresh raiment fringed by wispy clouds. This would not last. We knew a blizzard was forecast for midday. Time was of the essence.
The horses soon caught up. Their minders were most caring for the welfare of their animals, yet made a big effort on our behalf. The caravan was brought to a halt a hundred metres before the col. An hour and a half of furious shovelling ensued. Everyone got involved – our team of ten, our high-altitude porters, Mangal and Heera, the horsemen, and of course our four young musketeers. Only our cook, Naveen, demurred. He nursed his pot-belly across the chaos with imperious disdain. His work would start if and when we made camp. The air was charged with tension and first peals of thunder sounded, followed by flurries of damp snow. The horses inched to the top, and we dashed over to the far side. Here the trail was broad and gentle but topped with half a foot of snow. A glorious splash of flat green meadow lay 300 metres below, the perfect campground. With another half an hour of graft we were clear of the snow. The horses moved forward for five minutes but then abruptly stopped. The trail had become an impassable trough of glutinous red clay. Not even the most dispassionate horse-flogger would have considered continuing. All forty loads were dismounted.
Team spirit kicked in. We carried all essential kit for the night down to the meadows in huge loads. The porters went back for a second carry before nightfall. Base camp was yet a full day’s march away. Our predicament was unenviable, yet there was a sense of freedom to know that the expedition’s fortunes now lay solely in our hands.
Mangal Hour: From Mainwa camp at 3660m the trail made a depressingly long descent through rhododendron groves into the Gangartoli Gad. Mangal had previously reconnoitred the approach. While the others retrieved loads from the horse-dump, my co-leader Dave “Sharpey” Sharpe, Gavin, Steph and I followed Mangal down to Godhila bridge at 3340m.
“From here sir, two hours to base camp. Along a little, cross river, up a little; no problem,” went the Mangal mantra.
The valley was straight and V-shaped, then disappeared round a corner into snowy climes. For three kilometres we strolled pleasantly along grassy banks.
“Now one hour,” smiled Mangal with reassurance. I couldn’t for the life of me spot anywhere that could host a base camp in the next two miles.
A rougher ride led to a crossing of the river, a clear blue torrent of playful dimensions. A mile of devilish brushwood ensued.
“Maybe one and a half hour…” admitted Mangal. “Up there behind ridge…”
A seemingly interminable ascent of 300 metres took us to the ridge.
‘Mangal hour’ is certainly not ‘happy hour’
“Here base camp,” announced Mangal. Relief at the end of effort was overtaken by despondency at sight of snow-covered terraces, tight packed into the bend in the valley, a sunless windy spot. At least for Stephanie there was a stream nearby for refreshing shampoos. Despite the aesthetic short-comings the site was ideally placed where the terrain became truly alpine, the height 3950m. Upstream we spotted hints of snow-peaks among the afternoon mists. Unladen, the return took us all of 3½ hours.
Mainwa camp looking up to the Kalapani peaks
Above: A morning's haul of Keeda Jadi - probable value £100
Right: The Kalapani skyline from Snowcock Peak - our camp visible below the snow dome in left foreground; Vishnu Killa (5960m) on left and Pk 5882m on right skyline
Our porter boys - Puskar, Madan and Manoj
Best View Ever…: Over two days base camp was established and Naveen installed in his cook tent. This den would become a source of culinary delight and increasing squalor over the next 12 days. Our team showed its mettle. Everyone carried personal loads of 20kg up to base. The Nandakini four were now set to task to ferry all remaining loads across from Mainwa camp.
“Cold, sir; very cold…” was the new complaint. “Campmat please, sir.” Manoj had honed his acting skill to give a convincing rendition of rheumatic pain. We were quickly fleeced of all spare insulation. Puskar stayed cool and sported a freshly waxed moustache. A waxed jacket might have been more help to him. On every return journey they got a drenching in the afternoon hailstorms.
To add to the trip’s social dimension the hills were alive with the sound of expectorating keeda jadi hunters. The seasonal sweep of the slopes for the highly-prized aphrodisiac caterpillar fungus had begun. A handful of fungus tails, a reasonable haul from a morning’s work, can fetch close on £100 on the Chinese medicine market. The local men were out in force, so well camouflaged in their wool jackets that visits to our camp toilet were fraught with peril. No sooner were trousers dropped than a keeda jadi man would pop up out of the undergrowth, a particularly distressing experience for the three girls in our team.
After a cold nights the walk up-valley to the snout of the Kalapani Glacier was a delightful prance on hard-frozen snow. The valley opened into a broad lower stretch. Then the 800 metre icefall reared up to an assemblage of high peaks, all unclimbed and unexplored to our knowledge. A shapely peak of 4788m guarded the entrance to this wonderland. On our second day we left camp en-masse at 4.30am. A man named Sharpe should not be trusted with a knife. He sliced the top of his finger while trying to fix Stephanie’s crampon. Despite a lengthy delay to staunch the blood we topped out on our peak at 10am. The views both near and far were stupendous. The Vishnu range presents a frontal wave of corrugated gneiss to the south. We were standing on but one protrusion. To see the strata snaking away eastwards through the massif induced a feeling of giddiness.
Richard, whose upbringing in Bolton precludes loquacity, was moved to exclamation.
“That’s the best view I’ve ever seen in my life…”. This sentiment was to be repeated several times in coming days.
Peak 4788m - our route followed the ramp from right up left to the summit
The team rest during the ascent of Pk 4788m with the Kalapani icefall and peaks behind
Through the Furnace: With preliminaries over we could get stuck into the main meat of the expedition. Dave Woods was troubled and restricted by a nerve impairment in his neck and shoulder, and decided to withdraw from the trip to save further damage. The rest of us made a camp at 4400m under the icefall and endured an evening lashing of hail. Extrication from iced tents and packing took us two hours in the night. Heera and Mangal were expected to come up from base camp with loads of food, hardware and tents to join us at 3am. Struggling to break fresh trail in the aftermath of the storm they did not reach us until 4.30am, way beyond the safe starting time for a shaded icefall ascent. We commenced in knowledge that we’d be caught by the sun less than half-way up.
“Can there be any other sport where you expend so much effort to move so slowly?” Richard was waxing philosophical as we wilted in the heat somewhere around 5000m. Imagine the ‘Marathon des Sables’ run at high-altitude with an 18kg pack.
Sharpey led the way, weaving through fields of crevasses and white séracs. The terrain was as beautiful as it was merciless. We headed towards a levelling under a large rock rognon only to find our anticipated camp-site threatened by higher séracs.
I took over the lead guiding Heera, Mangal and Gav up a steeper slope away from danger. Glancing behind I saw that Heera was displaying his habitual inattention to the rope.
“Take the rope tight,” I ordered. Barely had Heera grabbed the rope than I plunged neck-deep through a flimsy bridge of snow to find myself dangling over a crevasse void, supported solely by my flailing arms. Heera pulled the rope so tight that my privates were severely crushed. I looked down despairingly to Mr Sharpe who lounged in the snow 50 metres below, watching my performance with amusement rather than concern. Some self-help was urgently required lest I drop out of reach. I twisted round, and kicked into ice on the crevasse wall. With that precarious purchase I inched both body and sack out of the hole.
Come 1pm we reached safe gentle slopes at 5355m altitude and collapsed in gratitude. Prodigious cumulo-nimbus clouds were towering above us up to 30,000 feet altitude. New storms were coming. Heera and Mangal needed to get back down the icefall as quickly as possible. While we brewed tea for them they emptied the contents of their sacks.
“Where’s the food?” I asked.
“What food sir?” the reply.
Some 20kg of rations, our sustenance for the next six days had been left in base camp. We were left with just brews and a few snacks.
“No problem sir; will bring tomorrow.” Mangal exuded his usual brave confidence, but, looking into his tired eyes I could tell there was a problem. How could they subject themselves to another torturous 1400 metre climb that very night? Yet without the food our ship would founder.
The storm broke with a vengeance just minutes after we erected our last tent, and heavy snowfall accompanied by gusting winds lasted well into the night. This was commitment. Heera and Mangal now faced 15cm of fresh snow on their re-ascent. To add to their woes the morning brought renewed suffocating heat and Mangal radioed that he had twisted his leg in a hole.
We assembled a rescue party. Dave, Ruth, Rich, Gav and I roped up and descended 400 metres back into the icefall to meet them. They were clearly at the end of their tether and immensely grateful to see us. We took three purgatorial hours to regain our high camp, but how good did that food taste – foil-packed curries followed by cake and custard! At last we could go climbing.
Above: Steph and Rich on top of Pk 5700 (Left Twin - Radha Parbat) (photo: Dave Sharpe)
Right: Dawn breaks during the ascent of Snowcock Peak
Kalapani Left Twin: “Vive la France” yelled Stephanie at 5am. News had just come through on our radio that France had elected not to become a fascist country. Having spent the past 36 hours in high-altitude sloth she was energised to join our first climb on the left of twin peaks on the Kalapani watershed.
Richard’s partner, Aoife, was unable to come. She had suffered sunburn during the icefall epic. A day indoors was essential.
Sharpey went ahead with Steph and Rich. Gav and Joe formed their own rope behind my team of Ruth and David Wolfe. Our climb started just half-an-hour from camp and followed the rocky skyline of the peak. Freed from heavy loads we enjoyed three hours of mountaineering delight – firm snow, interesting grade II rocky steps, good belays and magnificent views westwards beyond the confines of the Kalapani valley to Pandosera and the Kedarnath ranges – a PD+ to savour.
“If this was the Alps it would be mobbed,” observed Mr Sharpe.
Indeed, we had found a mini-paradise, the climb all the better for its brevity with no desperate struggles and no fear of epic descent. The climb finished at a short knife-edge where the Panpatia and Chaukhamba peaks came in view. The summit altitude was exactly 5700m. We returned to camp just as the clouds gathered for their afternoon storm-show. More of the same please!
Snowcock Peak: Our next objective was identified as 5532m on our maps, a shapely ridge of snow with no obvious technical difficulty. Aoife joined the fray her face wrapped in in scarf and buff, but Joe was afflicted by nausea and dropped at the bergschrund under the summit. We left camp at 4.30am. The day’s dawn was tempered by drapes of mist. The summit ridge was exposed high above the Kalapani Glacier and the following teams emerged from the fogs in silhouette with a Nanda Devi skyline behind.
Having claimed what we think is first ascent of the peak, the second ascent was claimed 10 minutes later by a waddling grouse, probably a Himalayan snow-cock, who followed our trail up the arête and watched us quizzically as we lounged on the top block.
We were back to camp at 9am, sweltered through the morning sun, then relaxed indoors as the afternoon storms gathered momentum.
Kalapani Right Twin: The prize peak of the range is Peak 5882m. Dave Sharpe, Dave Wolfe and Gav planned a midnight start for an attempt but the evening snowfall was so heavy that they abandoned their plan. Instead, we would all get up at 3am and go together for the right-hand of the twin peaks. I think we all felt better to be sharing an accessible peak rather than splitting up.
For Right-Twin, Sharpey, Steph and Ruth headed direct up a mixed face of Scottish grade II, while the rest of us climbed a grade I couloir to the left and tackled the west ridge of the peak. For a second day running Joe was forced to give up at the start of the difficulties and returned to camp on his own.
Our west ridge had a real Eigerish feel. The crest was fiercely steep so I traversed into a slim couloir to its right. Fresh powder snow overlay slabby rocks, giving the feeling of insecurity so resonant of alpine north faces. I took special delight in placing two pegs for security. This was the first venture to grade III climbing for Aoife. She quelled any urge to panic as feet skidded and quickly learnt the skill of wide-bridging and a “push don’t pull” technique with the arms. A bank of deeper snow nearly defeated her at the top, but, with Rich, Gav and David in tow, she reached the top just after the Sharpe team had vacated the crowning roost.
The summit was a sharp arête of shattered rock at 5685m altitude. To get a team of four back down the ridge a dependable abseil point had to be found. I excavated the choss and found a solid block plus a subsidiary spike for a back-up anchor. Soon we were all hanging in unison, stacked and ready to go, our cramponned feet scratching an exiguous ledge.
There were so many projecting flakes and spikes on the abseil line that I expected to the ropes to jam on retrieval, but they pulled through like a dream as if to confirm a blessing from the gods. After three lovely little climbs in three days we were back in camp at midday and could relax in contentment.
Dave, Ruth and Steph reach the summit of Rukmini Parbat (Right Twin) (5685m)
Pk 5898 (left) and 7138m Chaukhamba from the 1st pass on the 4-Cols Tour
The Four Cols Tour: The final phase planned for the trip was an exploratory trek starting over a col between the Kalapani and Panpatia basins. Perusal of maps suggested that a complete circuit of the range could be made, with onward crossings from Panpatia to the Maindagalla and Barma valleys, and thence back over the shoulder of Peak 4788m and down to the Kalapani and base camp. The first two passes were probably virgin and we could only guess at their probable difficulty. We envisaged taking two days to traverse all four.
Joe needed to get some lower altitude so joined David, Ruth, Richard, Aoife and me for the trek. Gav and Steph stayed behind with Sharpey, to make another attempt on the challenging summit of Peak 5882m and to clear our high camp. In the latter regard there was particular enthusiasm among our Gallic membership to scream “gardez l’eau” and cast the bagged contents of our camp toilet down the nearest deep crevasse. Sadly the attempt on Peak 5882m petered out at 5700m in face of fatigue and crusted snow, but Stephanie was able to fulfil her wish.
We six left camp at 4.35am on 14th May and enjoyed a serene glacial passage to the first col at 5510m. A flaming dawn had just broken over Chaukhamba. A 40 metre descent of 50deg snow took us down to the untrodden glacier on the north side. Using the hard crust David Wolfe marched us swiftly down the glacier slope crossing below the Kalapani twins. Immediately to our north the unclimbed turret of Pk 5898m, a worthy objective for any future expedition to the area.
The sunlight hit us at 6.45am and produced an immediate enervating effect. There were several potential cols along the western edge of the glacier and in view of the rising heat I plumped for the first available crossing. We reached the pass at 7.15am to find a simple slope on the far side that led to the Maindagalla Glacier. Our new valley was ringed by beautiful rock pinnacles. The rolling glacier led us gently down to a steeper snout. We unroped, stowed rope and clothing and staggered downwards through a disintegrating crust of snow to reach a levelling at 4650m. Up to our left a prominent thumbnail of rock marked the entrance to our third pass. Suddenly afflicted by the blinding sunlight and stifling heat we made camp. Hail showers commenced at 12.30pm and intensified through the afternoon. By nightfall 20 cm of fresh snow had fallen. We ate our last dinner and realised that whatever the weather the ‘thumbnail’ pass offered our only way home.
Sometime in the early night I stumbled outside barefooted for a pee and spotted the lights of distant villages down the Kedarnath side. The storm was clearing.
Collective enthusiasm to sample Naveen’s cooking at the earliest opportunity got us up at 2am and away by 3.45am. Base camp was less than 6km direct distance away. The 2km trudge to the pass took us three hours. At least the snow was deep and predictable rather than crusted. Thumbnail col measured 5005m in altitude. Mellow morning sunshine hit us down at 4700m on the Barma valley flanks. The fresh snow quickly became a treacherous wet layer overlying old crust. We put on crampons to descend a rocky 40 deg slope until we were level with the familiar outline of Peak 4788m.
“Would anyone who is training for a mountain marathon like to take over the lead on the last traverse?” I asked.
Ruth Wolfe had made the earlier admission that she was doing the Highland Cross event in June. She had no option but to comply and set to with a will. Her effort was typical of the commitment shown by all members on this trip. The enterprise had felt like real team mountaineering without the jostling of egos that often mars the joy of ventures to loftier objectives. Within an hour we were over a final col at 4550m, and on the homeward run down the Kalapani. As we descended we saw Dave Sharpe, Steph and Gav making their final descent of the icefall. We were reunited under Naveen’s good care for a late lunch.
Were it transposed to the Alps our ‘Four Cols’ route would be an instant classic.
Winding Up: Our four young porters were already plying the route from base camp to Mainwa Khal, returning our kit to a pick-up point for our horses. For all their moaning and studied nonchalance they had proved a loyal and worthy bunch. We might hope they find a future life beyond the drudgery of portering. In two more days we were rested, packed and homeward bound after the happiest of trips.
The Team: Martin Moran and Dave Sharpe (guides), Gavin Bishop, Richard Crompton, Aoife McNally, Joe Fender, Stephanie Mielnik, David and Ruth Wolfe and Dave Woods (climbers), Naveen Chandra (cook and field executive), Heera Singh and Mangal Singh (high-altitude porters), Puskar Rawat, Manoj Pandey, Madan Singh and Laxman Singh (base camp porters); with support from Chetan Pandey, Mansi Pandey and C.S.Pandey of Himalayan Run & Trek. Special thanks to Dave Woods for provision of a bottle of Glenmorangie to the venture.
Climbs and Tours Achieved:
Peak 4788m: ‘Gateway Peak’ by N Face (PD, Scottish grade I) by all members
Kalapani Icefall ascent (PD) by 9 members, Heera and Mangal
Kalapani Left Twin: ‘Radha Parbat’ by S Ridge (PD+, II+) (Dave S, MM, SM, GB, JF, RC, RW and DWolfe) – named after Krishna’s girlfriend (Krishna being the 8th reincarnation of Vishnu)
Pk 5520m (given 5532m on map): ‘Snowcock Peak’ PD (DS, MM, SM, GB, RC, AMc, RW and DW)
Kalapani Right Twin: ‘Rukmini Parbat’ S Face by DS, SM, RW (AD, Scottish grade II), W Ridge by MM, RC, AMc, DW, GB (AD, Scottish grade III) – named after Lord Krishna’s wife
Pk 5610m: snow dome under Pk 5882m: DS, GB, SM (F+)
Four Cols Route: Kalapani-Panpatia (5510m), Panpatia-Maindagalla (5310m), Maindagalla-Barma (Thumbnail col 5005m), Barma-Kalapani (4550m) – PD by MM, JF, AMc, RC, RW and DW)