A PEAK BAGGER’S GUIDE TO THE EASTERN KISHTWAR
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|Brahma Peaks (East Kishtwar)|
After a period of closure, the area was again open to foreigners in the early seventies, and there was a rush to climb the obvious plums in the western region. In 1973 Nick Escourt and Chris Bonnington made an ascent of Brammah I (6416 m), and two years later the Indian High Altitude Warfare School made the first ascent of the difficult Sickle Moon (6574 m). The peaks to the east meanwhile, were neglected, until in 1976, nearly 30 years after Kolb’s visit, a Japanese party attempted Barnaj II (6300 m). They retreated low on the mountain, but climbed P. 5130 m on the opposite side of the valley before leaving the area. The first peak in the Eastern Kishtwar had been climbed. This focussed attention on the Barnaj group for the next four years, and the following spring a larger Japanese expedition climbed the south ridge of Barnaj II to reach P. 6170 m — the south summit. After being defeated by appalling weather in 1976, Paul Nunn returned in 1979 with John Yates and made an alpine-style repeat of the Japanese route on Barnaj II. In 1978 Lindsay Griffin and Phil Bartlett climbed Maguclonne (5750 m) to the south of Barnaj III. Lindsay later visited the Chiring nala and soloed three small technical rock peaks of about 5600 m. In 1980 another Japanese expedition repeated the 1977 route on Barnaj II, but failed to reach the central or main summits. It would appear that no expedition has visited I he Barnaj group since, and although there is some confusion as to the naming of the peaks, it seems certain that none of the main summits of the Barnaj group have been climbed. (In 1988, whilst exploring the Hagshu glacier from the north, Nick Kekus noted a straightforward snow route to one of the main Barnaj summits, so an approach from Zanskar may prove to be the simplest way of attempting these fine mountains).
It was early in 1980, whilst I was looking for a suitable objective for a first Himalayan trip the following year, that Phil Bartlett suggested the Kishtwar during an OUMC lecture. Following up the Oxford connections by examining Lindsay Griffin’s slides and those of Steve Venables (who had been trekking in the Hagshu nala in 1979), pointed to two objectives — Agyasol (6200 m) and Kishtwar Shivling (6000 m). Lindsay was very taken by the north side of Agyasol, as had Fritz Kolb who had described it in his book Himalayan Venture as ‘a beautiful, really splendid mountain’. Steve on the other hand, pointed out the north face of Shivling, remarking (with remarkable foresight), that climbing it would lead (0 instant superstar status! It was with a certain naivety and urrogance therefore, that we decided to attempt both mountains, and the 1981 O.U. expedition to Kishtwar was born. ‘We’ consisted of three students — Mike Harrop, Nick Barrett, and myself, but .John Wilkinson and Roger Everett together with his wife Dairena (JalTney, came along as well to balance our youthful enthusiasm With a little more experience.
It was something of a shock later that year, to discover that a party from Kingston Polytechnic had attempted Agyasol that witumn, but had failed to cross the Dharlang river. (This still Mizzles me, since there is a bridge at Losani, directly under the mountain. I can only surmise that they did not travel far enough
_ Up the valley to find it). Showing remarkable determination they thru moved their base camp to the virtually unknown Kaban nala mi Ihe south side of the mountain, where they found an approach dm I o the east ridge. Running out of time, they retreated at 5600 m Iifli iw a prominent 300 m high rock buttress. This contribution in the exploration of the area was enormous, and I wonder whether we would have found the mountain at all, let alone been able to I’llmli it the following year without their reconnaissance. We had managed to leave our maps back in Britain, and having reached Atholc, were guided to the Kaban nala by the many locals who told us that the Kingston party had gone that way the year before.This is not quite as incompetent as it sounds, for the valleys in Kishtwar are deep and steeply sided, so it is impossible to see the mountains at all, until one reaches the higher villages such as Machail.
Agyasol is a large and complicated mountain, but once found, the east ridge proved to be an excellent route. We established ourselves at the Kingston highpoint below the rock buttress fairly quickly, but the weather turned bad that night and it stormed for the next three days. During a lull John, Mike and I (who was suffering badly from the altitude) descended, leaving Roger and Nick to sit the storm out for another two days. They climbed the rock buttress (which turned out not to be quite as fierce as it looked) in perfect weather, to a bivouac at its top, and continued along the long corniced ridges to the east summit the following day. They found it difficult to tell whether the central summit was any higher, and as reaching it would have involved many hundreds of metres of ascent and re-ascent along a sharp and exposed ridge, they decided to descend.
John unfortunately had run out of time and returned home with Roger, but Mike and I repeated the route after sitting out another five day storm below the rock buttress. The weather in Kishtwar is variable to say the least! After his first visit to Barnaj II in 1977, Paul Nunn described the weather as the worst he had encountered in 21 years climbing, but other parties have experienced fine settled spells of upto two weeks. Most expeditions have climbed post-monsoon and have been well established on their mountains in early September, although the Japanese parties have tended to climb pre-monsoon. The Zanskar side of the range receives little precipitation, so it may be possible to climb on this side throughout the summer. Any major weather system will affect the whole range however, but the western and southern peaks would appear to receive the bad weather first.
Mike and I reached the summit of Agyasol on a perfectly still clear day however, and had a superb view looking across to the mountains north of the Dharlang nala. At that time they were virtually all unclimbed, but now many of the important peaks have had ascents. Almost directly opposite lay Kishtwar Shivling with its impressive S face. Steve Venables returned with Dick Renshaw in 1983 to climb the N face — a difficult seven day climb up steep ice and rock. Together with the 1982 Polish routes on Arjuna (6230 m), it is probably the most difficult climb to date in the range. Further to the east was a fine pyramidal peak which we called Kishtwar Weisshorn (6100 m). It was climbed by Bob Reid and Ed Farmer in 1986, who made a long and unseen approach directly up from the Dharlang nala. Unacclimatized, they made a remarkably fast ascent of the icy SW face, taking only 3 days from the valley. Their liaison officer named their peak Bandagopuram — Hindi for ‘Ivory Tower’.
Directly to the north, at the head of the Hagshu nala, lay Hagshu Peak (6300 m). Steep on all sides it is one of the most impressive mountains in the area. This peak was attempted several times from the Kishtwar side, until it was eventually climbed in 1988 with a northern approach from Zanskar via the Hagshu glacier. Chiring (6100 m), just to the west across the Hagshu la (a difficult pass that is now only occasionally used), was almost climbed in 1980 by a British party when Chris Lloyd fell from the summit ridge. They climbed a nearby peak (5638 m), and named it Khogaya Dost (Hindi for ‘Lost Friend’) in memory of Lloyd. In 1987 after failing on the SW face of Hagshu, Andy Dunhill and Roger Brooks climbed the S ridge of Chiring to the S summit where they found an abseil sling. The Indian Mountaineering Foundation however, were unaware that Chiring had been climbed, but had an ascent of Hagshu on their records. It seems possible that a French party who climbed a mountain they named La Shal (6135 m) from the Hagshu nala in 1983, actually climbed Chiring, but it was recorded by the IMF as an ascent of Hagshu.
It was the other peaks in the Agyasol group however, that were to draw me back again in 1984. Before we left in 1981, Nick and I spent a day and a half climbing a prominent aiguille above our base camp, which we called Spire Peak (5000 m). It was really the first pinnacle on the long and complicated SE ridge of Mardi Phab-rang (6062 m), which is a very impressive mountain, and the most southerly of the Agyasol group. (This peak is marked as Gharol on many maps, but the local people from Kaban call a smaller rocky peak above their village Gharol. Gharol was first climbed in 1980 by an Indian team, but it is unclear which mountain they climbed). The NE pillar of Mardi Phabrang was the objective ol the 1984 expedition consisting of Mark Miller, Sean Smith, Tom Curtiss and myself. During marginal weather we established a tent at the top of the long icy couloir that led to the col at 5200 m, between the pillar and P. 6100 m to the north. The weather never let up and conditions were always too icy to attempt the 200 m rock buttress that led upto steep mixed ground and a beautiful narrow ‘S ‘shaped summit icefield. After it had snowed every day for three weeks we gave up our attempt. Ironically once we had descended to base camp, the weather turned fine. We reacted to our disappointment in different ways. The rest of the team wanted to return to Delhi as quickly as possible, whilst I was keen to explore the peaks at the head of the valley, so after packing a rucksack, I set off alone up the Kaban nala.
On entering this valley, the higher mountains are hidden, and the most striking peak is Tupendo I (5700 m), a fine rock spire with some resemblance to the Dru. It is also worshipped as a god from Kaban, which is why John coined the name ‘Druid’ for it in 1981. To its left is Tupendo II (5600 m), a straightforward snow peak (isomething of a rarety in Kishtwar), which looked a sensible mountain to try alone. I crossed the Agyasol glacier and bivouacked at 4600 m by a rock rognon. Rising early next morning, I climbed I he glacier to the col between the two mountains, and then climbed the broad S ridge to the summit. The weather was excellent, and I had plenty of time to study the surrounding peaks.
The Druid was not quite as steep in profile, and an interesting rock route could be climbed on the front (west) face. Corner Peak (5600 m) at the south end of the Agyasol glacier has a gully line cutting up through the NE face that leads onto the E ridge, which would make a good training climb. Behind me was P. 5900 m with a beautiful curling N ridge that would give reasonable climbing in a very impressive position overlooking its imposing Eiger-like NW face. It could either be approached from the col between the Druid and Tupendo II (which has an easy descent on the east side), or in a more leisurely fashion up the Halari nala from the Chenab river. This valley is unexplored and would also provide access to the Kalidahar group from the south. The main Agyasol group to the west provided an impressive backcloth of 6000 m peaks, with Mardi Phabrang standing proud at the western end of the chain. I still believe that the NE pillar is the finest prize in the area. It was attempted again by a British party in 1986, but arriving in the middle of September they had a similar experience to ourselves, suffering from poor weather, and were unable to make any significant progress on the route. Given good conditions it would make an ideal objective for a strong two-man team. The two mountains to its north, P. 6100 m (which Mark christened ‘Big Red Gnarley Peak’) and Spire Peak (6000 m) are both steep and impressive, but unfortunately comprise very poor rock. It may be possible to climb their icy N faces from the Bhut nala, but access would be difficult. A good view of P. 6100 m can be had from just above the bridge at Chishote, halfway between Athole and Machail. (The rock varies in quality throughout the range. The rock buttress on Agyasol is gneiss, which was very friendly and provided lots of holds. Dandagopuram consists of mica schist, whilst Kishtwar Shivling is comprised of good rock akin to granite). The greatest mountaineering challenge in the group however, would be to traverse the two Agyasol summits. This would be a committing route, but would provide an exciting adventure for a strong loam. The N face (which is similar in appearance to the Aiguille du Plan), can be reached from Dangel in the Dharlang nala, and loads directly to the unclimbed central summit. Once the E summit was reached, the descent to Kaban and then Athole would take between two and three days.
It was a new experience to stand alone on an unclimbed summit, and it was tempting to stay longer, but I wanted to descend before the sun softened the snow. I retraced my footsteps to the Agyasol glacier, and then made the long haul to the site of the 1981 Agyasol advance base at 4500 m. I was intending to cross the Kaban la (a pass that is used frequently by shepherds in the summer), into the Dharlang nala, and then hopefully catch up with the others in Kishtwar. I started early next morning, and soon reached the glacier below the E ridge of Agyasol. On the north side it seemed remarkably snowy for a route suitable for animals, but I put it down to the weeks of bad weather and continued on down anyway. Several hours later, after I had gingerly picked my way through an extensive crevassed zone, the penny eventually dropped, and I realized that I had missed the route. (I should have traversed the slopes east from the ABC site to above a small glacier below the steep NW face of Tupendo II, which is cut by a superb gully that leads directly to the summit). I felt tired, and unsure of where exactly the Kaban la was, I was unwilling to retrace my steps in the knee-deep snow. I continued on down which proved to be a big mistake. The crevasses became larger and I was forced to start abseiling, until suddenly I came out at the top of a huge vertical ice-walL I sat down and thought about what to do. The easiest option was to abseil down the ice-wall, and pray that two ice-screws were enough to reach the bottom. I set up the first abseil from an ice-bollard, but after clipping my descendeur into the ropes, I couldn’t bring myself to make the commitment. After a succession of bad decisions and poor judgements throughout the day, sense prevailed and I knew I had to find another way. Eventually I summoned up enough energy to climb over a small rock peak, and then abseiled down a steep icy gully on its N side. When J ran out of gear, I downclimbed to reach another glacier system that led down into a tiny hanging valley. My major worry now was whether it possible to follow this down into the Dharlang nala, but just as darkness fell I found a tiny deserted shepherds’ .shelter by a small pasture. Someone had been here before me! [ was moved to tears. I reached Machail at 11 a.m. next morning, and just made Athole by nightfall. I caught up with the rest of the team the following evening in Kishtwar, and we all left for Jaramu early next morning.
The summit view from Agyasol towards the unknown peaks northeast of the Dharlang nala had fascinated me for years, but It was a telephoto shot that Venables had taken from his bivouac on Kishtwar Shivling that finally prompted Roger Everett and I to return this September 1988. Our objective was the NW spur of Chomochior (6322 m), which stands at the head of the Haptal nala. A brief reconnaissance revealed that the lower part of the spur was comprised of very rotten rock, and the approach was blocked by a steep and chaotic 600 m icefall. We decided to try the W ridge instead. I had previously written this off as being too hard, because entry onto the summit ridge was guarded by a large rock tower. This looked like the crux, and at the end of the long (and obviously difficult) ridge, it made the whole route into a serious Undertaking.
The approach was long. We crossed the main Haptal glacier, climbing two icefalls to reach the upper glacier, and then took the left branch to reach an ice couloir that cut up through the S face to reach the W ridge. We climbed the couloir for 700 m to reach a bivouac at 5620 m on the ridge. We spent a day acclimatizing here before climbing the ridge with a mixture of rock and ice-pitches to a bivouac at 6030 m. The weather had been perfect upto now, but it snowed all night. We made an early start next morning, taking advantage of a brief clear spell. Several mixed pitches led to a steep rock wall, below and to the right of the final tower, which now looked even steeper than it had from below. Roger set off up an icy crack which soon petered out into blank rock. The sky became darker as Roger ground to halt, teetering on verglassed holds. Eventually he lowered off, and feeling desperate, we made a diagonal abseil down to a small platform on the left. We hadn’t dared to hope it, but easier rock now led up to the left of the wall. I let out a shout as I reached its top, for I could now see that easy snow slopes led round the tower to the right. In a moment, the climb had gone from probable failure to almost certain success.
We continued up the snowy summit ridge, and at 10 a.m. on 9 September we were proudly standing by the summit cornice. We managed to get the occasional glimpse of the higher mountains through the swirling cloud. Agyasol, Sickle Moon, Barnaj and Hagshu dominated the skyline, whilst the nearer, and shapely TDandagopuram just poked through the cloud. Across the Chomochior glacier to the east stood P. 6400 m, a steep peak with no obvious route to the top. It is now the highest unclimbed summit in the range, and will be attempted by a Scottish party next autumn. The nearest peak however, was Cerro Kishtwar (6200 m), a daunting rock spire that would not have been out of place in Patagonia. We spent a long time studying the W face from our advance base camp on the upper Haptal glacier, before we eventually spotted a line up a narrow ice couloir that led up through its seemingly blank upper walls to reach the S ridge. From the summit ridge of Chomochior however, we saw perhaps a more climbable route on its tremendous 2000 m NE face. Although steep, a line of icy gullies and grooves leads all the way to the summit. Other worthwhile objectives from the Haptal nala include several small rock peaks between Dandagopuram and Kishtwar Shivling, and the SE pillar of Shivling itself, which would provide a magnificent rock climb.
Carl Schaske and Jeff Knight met us on our return to the valley. They had just made the first ascent of Kalidahar main peak (5900 m), which lies across the Dharlang nala from Dandagopuram, by a good ice and mixed route up the E ridge. The rest of their party were attempting the impressive Kalidahar Spire (5600 m). We learnt later that Conran Anker and Kevin Green climbed the N ridge by a superb 15 pitch climb (5.10 and A2), but Geoff Hornby and Tom Norris were less fortunate when they were defeated by expanding flakes after 22 pitches, at half height on the larger NW face.
It had been fascinating to explore the cirque of mountains around the Haptal glacier, but one thing still puzzled us. Where exactly had Kolb gone when he crossed the elusive Muni la in 1947? My initial thought was that the icy col below P. 5900 m, on the right fork of the Haptal glacier must be the pass, but Roger was not convinced. He rather shrewdly guessed that Kolb must have taken the valley to the east of the Umasi nala. After all he reasoned, the Umasi la led into Zanskar, and it seemed logical that Kolb should have tried a parallel valley. From Chomochior we had noticed a sharp notch in the rock wall on the west side of the huge glacier basin below the N face. Was this Kolb’s Muni la? After a day’s rest at base camp, it was time to put the theory into practice, so we packed four days food and set off to repeat Kolb’s journey. We were tired, and it took us two days to reach the tiny glacier at the head of the valley — a journey that must have taken Kolb half a day or so if he was to keep to his demanding three day schedule. Unfortunately the weather closed in for the next two days, so we never crossed the notch, but it did look reasonable from its eastern side, and we were certain that we had found the Muni la. Kolb’s journey remains unrepeated, and is an excellent example of the exploratory trekking the area has to offer.
Twelve years after the first peak was climbed, most of the higher summits have now had at least one ascent, but often only by the most obvious route. There is plenty of scope left to satisfy those looking for a technical challenge with a hint of the unknown.