By Martin Moran
is hard to find logic in the footsteps of mountaineers. The Khatling
Glacier and Bhilangna River drain one of the largest valley systems
of the Garhwal Himalaya, headed by the magnificent south wall of 6904m
Thelay Sagar, ringed by peaks between 5500 and 6500m in altitude and
just a few miles from the honeypots of Shivling and the Gangotri Glacier
which are visited by thousands of trekkers, pilgrims and climbers
each year. Yet nobody seems bothered to climb up in the Khatling and
only a few trekking parties visit en-route to the Shastra Tal or the
Maiali Pass and Kedarnath. What the masses miss is a valley of exquisite
sylvan beauty and a vast mountaineering potential that has barely
The last official climbing party to visit the valley
was the British Thelay Sagar expedition of 1992. All of this is bad
news for the local people who have missed out on the trekking and
climbing boom. It is small wonder then that we were feted as special
visitors when our team of seven climbers arrived at Ghuttu, the Bhilangna
roadhead in late April 2002.
We were enticed by photographs, taken by the 1992
team, showing a range of striking granitic spires and towers ringing
a side glacier on the eastern rim of the basin. Their local name is
the Sat-ling, which means the seven phalluses or pillars. The 1992
team gave some of them individual names appropriate to their shape
and features – for example The Cathedral and Rabbit’s
Ears. To our knowledge the peaks were entirely untouched. The pictures
showed the highest of the summits to be capped by two hammer-heads
of granite, around 5850m in altitude and defended by steep walls and
ridges. This was provisionally named ‘Double-Headed Peak’.
The range promised a feast of technical rock and
ice climbing at modest altitude. How could such gemstones have been
untouched when Ghuttu is only 12 hours driving time from Delhi?
Approach to Base Camp
We left Delhi at 1.30am on April 27th and the night
ride to Rishikesh was swift and peaceful, the silent plains of Uttar
Pradesh acquiring a ghostly beauty under a waning moon. The springtime
heat became intense as our bus wound its way over the foothills through
Chamba and then down to Tehri, where the largest dam project in the
subcontinent is in an advanced state of construction. The massive
dam plugs a narrowing in the Bhagirathi valley, just downstream from
old Tehri town, which was already partially submerged. New settlements
have been built on the west side of the valley. The scale of the earthworks,
concrete spillway, overflow tunnels and labour camps was awesome,
almost threatening. Yet 20km beyond, in the lower Bhilangna valley,
the timeless tranquillity of rural life was regained. We reached the
roadhead at Ghuttu (1524m) at 6.15pm and took quarters in a large
but otherwise empty resthouse.
Our 35 porters were recruited from Ghuttu and surrounding
villages. In two easily-paced days of 10km each we walked to Reeh
(2132m) and Gangi (2650m). At both villages large resthouses provided
accommodation, their comforts depreciated by collapsing floorboards
and colonies of rats. The valley scenery was of a high order, the
villages attractively sited on terraces and surrounded by freshly-tilled
fields of potato mounds and wheat. The local women wore nose jewellery,
usually a disc pendant, and they were shy and resentful of any photographic
intrusion. The kids were more forthcoming, yelling a chorus of ‘Mithai,
Mithai’ (sweeties) as we passed.
The 18km trek to Kharsoli (2950m) was favoured by
wonderful clear weather. The valley makes a V-shaped trench, thickly
clad in olive-needled pines which were interspersed with the spring-green
foliage of chestnuts. Rhododendron was profuse, although its flowers
were past their most vivid display. The track linked several forest
clearings where goatherds are grazed in summer. The final 8km followed
the riverbank. Save for the obstacles of fallen tree trunks, the trail
was distinct and the going good, but the undulations of the route
made for a fatiguing day. Kharsoli is a large grazing area at the
confluence of the Kairi Gad with the main Bhilangna valley. The porters
were lodged variously in caves and tents. The remnants of winter were
now visible in form of a 60 metre icefall high in a gorge and wide
fans of avalanche debris in all the side nalas.
The final march to base camp was rendered stressful
by a steady gain in altitude, the sighting of a bear at Bhelbagi alp,
a widening cover of snow and a temporary porter strike. At its end
we were safely installed at 3720m, abreast with our most optimistic
schedule. A heavy snowfall commenced just after the porters were embarked
on their return trek. The base camp was located by a large boulder
in a wide ablation valley under the Phating Glacier lateral moraine.
A metre of snow covered the alluvial flats but a healthy stream was
flowing under the pack. We spent two hours digging out an area of
ground for the mess tent, but pitched personal tents on the snow.
The snows melted rapidly over the next two weeks. A sizeable lake
emerged 100 metres away and our tents were left perched on ice platforms.
Entry to the Satling Glacier
All members took an exploratory walk up towards the
Satling Glacier, climbing to the moraine crest overlooking the Phating
Glacier. From here the brown rock wall of Thelay Sagar’s South
Face was impressively displayed, but our eyes were more immediately
drawn to the array of granite pinnacles up to the right where the
side glacier of the Satling tumbled down to meet the main glacier.
A short excursion out on to the Phating Glacier brought into view
the castellated citadel of Pt 5541, christened The Fortress. On its
left the Satling icefall bridged the valley, but a weakness on its
left hand side offered a route to the upper glacier where we hoped
to place an advance camp.
Our team now split. Rupert and Sally Bennett planned
an exploratory trip up the Phating Glacier towards Rudugaira (5364m)
and Ratangrian (5858m). The Satling candidates formed two teams, the
first comprising Mark Davidson, John Venier and myself, and the second
Keith Milne and Gordon Scott, who had been on the 1992 trip and had
now come back to claim some prizes. On May 3rd five of us plus high
altitude porter Mangal took substantial loads up the Satling valley
to a height of 4500m. The intense midday heat persuaded us to make
a temporary dump. The distance to the gentle snowfields of the upper
glacier was further than we had at first imagined. The next morning
we left at 6.50am for the decisive push to establish our advance base
with help from both porters, Mangal and Hari. Above 4500m with loads
well over 20kg each our pace slowed to an agonised plod.
For 200 metres the route traversed sloppy snow above
a considerable drop into the jaws of the icefall, then climbed diagonally
up to the lip of the upper plateau. After a seemingly endless trudge
the glacier folded into a flat-bottomed hollow ideal for a campsite.
The altitude was around 4950m and the time 12.30pm. But what a site!!
Exhaustion turned to elation as we viewed the scything ridges of ‘Double-Headed
Peak’ across the glacier. We were sited close under 200m walls
of pristine granite and had a 180 degree outward panorama ranging
from Thelay Sagar round to Jaonli and Bhetiara-ka-Danda. In its foreground
rose an 80m fang of rock, which beckoned to be photographed with a
climber perched on its summit in the dramatic fashion of Pierre Tiarraz’s
pictures of the Chamonix aiguilles. While Mangal and Hari ploughed
down the snows back to base camp we lay outside all afternoon enjoying
the peerless weather.
On May 5th after retrieving all remaining kit from
our dump, we walked up the glacier to view potential objectives. Though
not in the top league in terms of scale, in all other respects this
is a cirque of superlatives. Every gradation of rock geometry from
brown and sunny aiguilles to blank and bulging walls of unweathered
granite was displayed to captivate the eyes. Caps of blue ice and
a topping of white spring snow completed the spectacle. At the left
end of the glacier twin domes of granite, named ‘The Rabbit’s
Ears by the 1992 team, looked particularly appealing. Our threesome
decided to attempt the nearer of these on the morrow.
The Rabbit’s Ear and
At dawn on the 6th we tramped up the glacier until
below the east col of the nearer tower. The views en-route demanded
a prolonged stop for photography and for examination of possible objectives.
Our route itself proved a little more serious than expected. After
two long pitches on 50degree snow and grade II mixed ground we gained
the East Ridge of the tower which was poised above an impressive drop
down to the shaded Bhartekhunta Glacier. The other Rabbit’s
Ear sported a sheer granite face of some 400 or 500 metres vertical
height on its north-west side. The hanging seracs of Bhartekhunta’s
South Face formed an appropriately savage backcloth. After a varied
pitch of III+ up the arête, our way was barred by the bulging
summit block. But there was a neat solution in the form of a strenuous
grade V hand traverse round its left side which led to easier shelves
and the snow-capped summit. We were on top at 12.30pm, guessing our
altitude at c.5530m, and regained the glacier at 2.15pm after three
60 metre abseils. Rumbles of thunder heralded our return and commencement
of a two-hour snowstorm.
Rising 800m from the upper Phating Glacier is a slender
rock steeple, which had been named The Cathedral. From the Satling
side this was an accessible objective with its summit just 400 metres
above our camp. Here the peak presented us with a pair of fierce rock
pillars split by a steep central chimney. We left at 8.30am and soloed
a grade I couloir to the col beneath the central gully where we changed
into rock shoes and left our plastic boots. Carefully avoiding snow
and ice patches we climbed four varied pitches to the breche between
the two aiguilles, the hardest a strenuous crack of V+ standard. The
south top was patently inaccessible in rock shoes and we pinned our
hopes on being able to surmount the north top. However, it was impossible
to tell whether it was the higher of the two. After some delicate
moves up the arête we faced a smooth final 5 metre tower. To
our joy an exposed but easy traverse went round its right side where
a short slab gained the pinpoint summit. Better still, we considered
ourselves a metre or so higher than the south top so could make unequivocal
claim to the first ascent. Two full 60 metre abseils straight off
the summit ridge regained our sacks and we scurried back to our tent
as stormclouds threatened.
A lovely mellow evening allowed us to cook outside;
here was Himalayan living at its most enjoyable. Despite glorious
weather we now needed a short rest at base camp.
The Fortress North Couloir
While we engaged the Rabbit’s Ear Keith and Gordon made an abortive
attempt to climb the attractive West Ridge of Point 5260m immediately
behind our camp behind camp. Foiled by the snowstorm, they planned
instead to attempt the first ascent of The Fortress (5541m) which
sported an attractive north couloir, which gleamed with ice in its
lower part then zig-zagged to the summit.
Leaving at 6am Gordon and Keith completed the climb
in 10 hours, enjoying two pitches of Scottish grade IV and V in standard,
several of III/IV and long sections of steep snow. They were shielded
from sight of stormclouds gathering from the south, and continued
to the summit notch in ignorance of the threat. Luckily, the promised
thunderstorm did not materialise and they reached the top at c.4.00pm.
The descent was made part by abseil and part by downclimbing. They
regained camp at around 10pm after an excellent climb.
Discussion during our rest day at base camp centred
on the topography of our main objective. A third hammer-headed summit
had been spotted on our Double-Headed Peak rendering its name obsolete.
Triple-Headed Peak and Fluffy were suggested as alternatives but in
respect for our Hindu hosts we settled on Brahmasar (Brahma’s
Head), the God Brahma being depicted with three heads. Climbing the
thing would be rather more difficult. We guessed that the south side
of the peak might be rather shorter of approach and easier in angle,
but with our camp and all kit on the Satling Glacier to its north
we were bound to go back that way. Mark, John and I decided to try
the West Ridge. Meanwhile Keith and Gordon would go over a col at
the head of the Satling and try to access the south face for a lightweight
attempt. Early on the 10th we climbed back to our Satling camp.
Brahmasar West Ridge
At the ungodly hour of 2.10am we set out into a perfect
clear night, progressing in relaxed fashion to the bergschrund, then
plugging steadily up compact dry snow at 55 degree angle. When the
snow petered out we had to traverse right into a runnel of glassy
ice which led direct to the west col in three pitches of Scottish
grade III, A short grade IV rock chimney brought us to the ridge crest
and a welcome burst of sunshine at 8.30am. We changed into rock shoes,
packed boots, axes and crampons in the sacks. Early fatigue was alleviated
by the delightful climbing that followed. A fierce gendarme could
be circumvented with ease on its right hand side. We ambled along
a veritable ‘vire aux bicyclettes’ with a beautiful backdrop
of snow peaks and glaciers to the south. The triple heads of Brahmasar
soared above us. From the next notch the rock progressively steepened.
An excellent 50m pitch of IV+/V led up the crest to a commodious terrace.
With confidence rising - our altimeter showing us
only 150m from the top and the day still young at 11am - we decided
to dump all bivouac kit here in expectation of completing the climb
and returning by abseil that evening.
Almost immediately the first big routefinding mistake
occurred. I climbed a delicate unprotected arête to find myself
on top of a pinnacle with no onward connection. Luckily, I could fix
a 5 metre sling round the top and lowered off. The episode wasted
30 minutes and significant energy. Awkward grade IV and V climbing
on the left flank of the crest brought to us to a levelling in the
ridge before it swept up to an obvious crux section of smooth vertical
rock. Two grade IV pitches brought us to its base.
I left my sack to be hauled at a projecting 6 metre
bulge. Happily a good jam crack cut diagonally left through this,
giving a few strenuous moves. Two delicate sections of similar standard
gained easier ground. Clever manoeuvres were needed to haul my sack
up the arête and this grade VI pitch consumed much energy. Already
the time was 4.30pm.
There was no sign of the easy ground we anticipated
finding beneath the first summit. A frustrating diagonal pitch of
mixed snow and rock produced dilemmas of route choice. We now reached
a level shoulder just 15m below the first summit. We had to traverse
leftwards under this but the terrain remained stubborn, in the grade
IV/V range, with much loose rock. After 15 metres of this traverse
the alarm bells sounded. Retreat, especially at night, was looking
increasingly problematic. The traverses would be especially difficult
to reverse, and, had we continued, two hours of daylight looked insufficient
to tackle the smooth summit tower. You accept a disappointment and
frustration that will last for months to come when turning back so
close. After 15 pitches of TD climbing we were less than 60 metres
below the top.
The difficulty of retreat down the arête soon
confirmed the wisdom of our decision. To keep the ropes centred on
the ridge I had to clip the ropes into intermediate runners on my
way down. A rope jam would have been disastrous especially on the
grade VI pitch. Horizontal sections of ridge had to be down-climbed
to find new abseil points. Evening cloud licked our ridge and the
rock glowed orange in the lowering light. When darkness came John
discovered his torch wasn’t working and Mark and I had to guide
him down with our torchbeams.
We regained the ledge at 9.15pm. Luckily all breezes
had subsided and a clear moonless night was established. After prolonged
operations to arrange belays and get into extra clothing we crawled
into bivouac bags at 11pm. There was just enough ice on the terrace
to make a couple of brews. We had no sleeping bags but survived well
enough. I awoke shivering several times but quickly dropped back to
a deep sleep. Only when the dawn sun touched Jaonli’s summit
at 6am did we fully rouse ourselves .
We made two abseils down to the notch before the gendarme, and rappelled
four more ropelengths directly down austere chimneys towards the snowfield
of our approach. We down-climbed the final 200 metres to meet the
sunshine just as we crossed the bergschrund. In baking heat we dragged
our bodies over the glacier and crashed out at camp at 11am. Despite
the ultimate failure we had enjoyed a magnificent climb.
We quit the Satling Glacier at 8.15am on the 13th,
somehow strapping all remaining kit into loads of 30kg with which
we staggered down to a safe dumping spot at 4700m. Leaving some 20kg
to be collected the next day by Mangal we continued down to reach
base camp at 10.30am.
The Satling Circuit and Brahmasar
On their return to the Satling camp Gordon and Keith
planned a busy three day schedule with the aim of getting round to
the south-east side of Brahmasar, wherefrom the summit might be more
easily tackled. First they made the first ascent of Point 5260m (named
Point Walkers) by its snowy east ridge, a short and pleasant climb
of PD+ standard. Then came the hard work of moving camp and 20kg loads
to the head of the Satling Glacier.
The watershed was crossed to the Dudhganga basin
via a snow arête and summit close to Pt 5709m. After a delicate
descent of the east side they crossed a subsidiary col to make camp
in the basin under Brahmasar’s South-East Face. A steep narrow
couloir led up to a col between the central and highest top (Brahmasar
I) and the southern summit (Brahmasar II). A shorter grade I couloir
led up to the col between Brahmasar I and Cream Topping at the foot
of BI’s East Ridge. However, this East Ridge looked hard. The
intense daytime sun could create conditions ripe for rockfall or avalanche
in either gully by mid-morning. Gordon and Keith chose the longer
left hand couloir, on the logic that it would allow them access to
either BI or B II.
With a night start the left couloir was climbed quickly
to the notch, giving one pitch of grade IV standard. On viewing the
60m summit block of B I from the notch they could see no direct way
up without hard aid climbing or even drilling. Gordon and Keith decided
instead to bag B III, which was both accessible and technically feasible.
A grade IV chimney-crack led to the summit, from which B I looked
between 10 and 20 metres higher, a worthy ‘inaccessible pinnacle’.
The descent was made in 3 hours.
In the afternoon they packed and crossed another
col south of Brahmasar to gain the neve snowfields leading under the
east side of the Fortress and back to the Phating Glacier. They reached
base camp just in time for dinner at 6.30pm.
The weather was now distinctly hotter and sultry.
Delhi was recording 46 deg C! The melt of remaining winter snow proceeded
at a frightening pace and the rivers were raging, no longer bridged
by snow. Our 24 porters arrived at 8am under the direction of Sirdar
Prem Singh Rotela. The Khatling Glacier stream was forded a mile upstream
at a section of alluvial flats. By 11am the party gained Khatling
cave, and by 2pm all porters had reached Kharsoli. Prem Singh promised
a campground 5km further on. After 5 miles we had passed several flat
clearings but none with a fresh water supply nearby. Prem Singh finally
called a halt 2km before Kalyani at 5pm. Our cook Naveen conjured
another tasty supper out of our scant remaining stocks.
Starting at 7am on May 16th we reached Gangi at 9.30am,
took a second breakfast and then continued wearily and painfully down
to Reeh. Both members and porters were delighted when a halt was called
despite threats from Prem Singh and Naveen to continue down to Ghuttu.
The trek was completed swiftly in the cool of morning. Our porters
had done excellent work and we gained much gratification in rewarding
them handsomely with gifts, food and another tip. A smooth bus ride
took us to Rishikesh by 5.30pm where baths, hairdressers and cake
shops were widely patronised. After a night of luxury in the Natraj
Hotel we returned to Delhi on the 18th, the temperature in the capital
a mere 41.5 deg C. We took Mangal and Hari out for a celebration meal
and all too quickly we were on our way home on the night flight to
Conclusions and Recommendations
Weather: The weather was impeccable
throughout the trip; late April and early May seem an ideal time to
climb on peaks in the 5,000-6,000m range. By mid-May unstable rising
air from the hot plains makes inroads to the Himalayan chain.
Snow Conditions: Given stable weather the snow was
stable and well-packed giving ideal climbing conditions. Approach
gullies were largely filled with snow yet the ridges were sufficiently
clear that rock shoes could be worn on more technical routes. At the
end of April the snow cover was continuous down to 3700m; there is
potential for ski-touring at this time of year and ski-ascents of
many peaks around 5500m could be attempted.
Trekking Route and Porters: The Bhilangna valley
is not often visited but local porters were well-organised and easily
available despite competing demands of ploughing and sowing in the
village fields at this time of year. Beyond Ghuttu it is difficult
or impossible to purchase basic foodstuffs, so the party and porters
must be self-sufficient. The high level trekking routes are not clear
of snow until mid-May.
Other Climbing Objectives: Our team only scratched
the surface of the potential of the Satling range. Future objectives
include the first ascents of the remaining pinnacles and the first
ascent of the crowning peak of Brahmasar. The North Ridge and North-West
Buttress of Brahmasar would give hard challenges. There are also ice
goulottes some 500m in length between Brahmasar and its neighbouring
tops. The West Face of The Fortress offers several mixed rock and
ice lines. Finally, there are some compact big walls of 500m height
on The Rabbit’s Ears and the buttresses east of Brahmasar.
Any teams wishing to climb on the Satling should book the peak Brahmasar
with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. Brahmasar is now an officially
recognised peak. Whatever your objectives some delectable climbing