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THE SEVEN PILLARS
By Martin Moran

Sometimes it 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 been tapped.

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 The Cathedral

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.

Intermission

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 II

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.

Return Trek

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 Amsterdam.

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 awaits.

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