T16, South summit, Zanskar, India “Supercouloir” ED – first ascentThursday 30 June, 2016
In the winter of 2016 I received a request from a free-lance journalist, Maya K. Prabhu, asking for opinions on the alpinism scene in India for a piece she was preparing for the USA based magazine ‘Alpinist’. (Since then the article has appeared in issue nr 54 / summer 2016 under the title Notes from the Frontier). Following the conversation with Maya I felt like I somehow left a rather pessimistic pronouncement regarding the young ‘alpine-style’ aspiring mountaineers in India and, through my involvement in the first Climbathon organized by the IMF in 2013, I knew quite a few of them… That’s not to say I have not been honest about my appraisal, but I felt somehow I was also a bit too harsh…
Cristina and I were looking for a project for 2016 and, probably more than ever, not finding the project was the problem but how to finance it. By the end of winter one by one of the best laid plans fell through and with guiding work laid for the heart of the spring season looked like it will be left at that. However that nagging feeling following the interview and the availability at the beginning of the monsoon season raised the question: how about a joint Indo-Romanian expedition, alpine-style, self funded and self organised – a friend’s trip. Not a mentoring trip, not a training programme, not an official expedition – just some friends on a climbing trip. I wrote to Karn and Prerna (two participants in the Climbathon 2013 and also subjects of the piece in ‘Alpinist’) asking them if they’d be up for it. Karn I haven’t seen since 2013 but Prerna has joined Cristina and I on the trek in during our failed attempt of a new line on Bhagirathi I in 2014. They both seemed interested and we were looking for something both accessible and affordable for the project at hand: two climbs – one acclimatization climb in ‘international’ pairs (Karn and myself and Prerna with Cristina) and one project in the ‘national’ teams.
We looked initially at Jorkanden which we knew has not been climbed yet from Kalpa and presented some interesting lines but the proximity to the border with China required a lengthy approval process from the Indian Ministry of Defence and we did not have the time for that. In the end, a couple of weeks before my departure to Nepal, we decided to give a shot to the unknown, namely Zanskar. A Japanese senior’s expedition of 2011 trekked in the area and photographed few and mapped most of the open peaks in the area. An exploratory trip the Japanese expedition’s write-out was an invaluable source for us into getting a sense of the layout of the area where the IMF had listed only code-names (P 6431), altitudes and GPS coordinates. With the help of Google Earth we identified, somewhat approximatively, in 3D some of the peaks hidden by the code-names and went on blindly choosing an objective based on how we appreciated it may look in reality based on the Google Earth imagery.
It was a long shot but so was the whole project of the expedition itself. We applied for the permit and I left for Nepal remaining that we will sort out the logistics through email between India, Romania and Nepal.
On May 30th, after a month of guiding and playing in Khumbu, I met Cristina in Delhi and on the 1st of June we were all four of us (Cristina, Prerna, Karn and myself) at the IMF to pick up our paperwork for our intended objective(s) (T13 and T16 as were coded further by the Japanese expedition). We were to be joined on the trip by Nishit, a boulderer from Pune and good friend of Karn and Prerna. On June 2nd we left Delhi in two batches – Karn, Nishit and Argos the dog with part of our luggage in Karn’s Duster and Cristina, Prerna and I by public transport with the rest of the luggage. We were planning on meeting at the end of the road, ahem… the world: the village of Padum.
We travelled by public bus from Delhi to Jammu (about 10 hours) where we switched to a shared taxi (actually a mini-van in which you squeeze 6 random people – 6 if you’re lucky- willing to travel to the same final destination) and we stopped, 12 hours later, in Srinagar (after a bit of a detour around a village due to a gun-fight between the Indian Armed Forces and Islamists in the said spot; quite a sight to see the army rushing, gun in hand, all the while we were ushered a rundabout outside the village and helicopters circling around). From Srinagar, where we spent the night, we took the next day another van to Kargil for another 10 hour journey. Kargil, I imagine, remained in the same state as right after the Kargil War and India thought of not bothering too much to rebuild it just in case Pakistan decides to shell it again… In any case Kargil is the only town I ever saw buildings held together with …. ropes. Anyhow, after a sad night in the squalid hotel room we leyft early next morning the ruins after an extended shopping session for supplies (veggies, rice, flour, eggs, fruit, Coke and whatever else the girls decided will be our diet for the next weeks). Twelve hours later, on the night of June the 5th we were in Padum (3600m), slightly less crashed than we expected after the travel. We promptly yet totally by chance met Karn, Nishit and Argos in the first restaurant / dhaba we rested our tired bodies.
Also by chance and not by design a local boy, taxi driver by trade, by the name of Tenzing Thapa was officially appointed our sirdar, cook and BC manager. Next day was spent on a recce trip up the valley towards our objective looking for a way across the river (river which the Japanese party had troubles crossing so skipped entirely Chhogo Tokpo, our intended destination) then by sorting out loads and gear lists.
Weather was perfect and I was wondering how long it will last. From the doorway of our guesthouse we could see peak T20… It didn’t look bad at all….
On June 7th, we headed towards our intended Base Camp accompanied by Tenzing and 12 porters: 6 Nepali and 6 Ladakhi. Despite the rather short distance (12 km from where the truck dropped us) to our intended BC we decided, for acclimatization purposes, to stop at 4200 m on a grassy shelf full of boulders. While Cristina and I were waiting there for the rest of the party to arrive we identified a cavern under boulders that would suffice for the 5 of us as shelter and save us from setting up a tent. The porters would have to fit somehow in the kitchen tent and that may have been a problem… so we started looking for another cavern. Nevertheless the problem was solved rather swiftly though not sure if in our advantage; after waiting for a ridiculous amount of time compared to the distance to be covered, in the end only 6 porters showed up with Tenzing, Karn, Nishit and Prerna. Apparently the Nepalis spent some time chasing yaks to load them with our gear and by the time they covered half of the distance and the yaks were of no use anymore they decided the task at hand is quite hard for them and buggered off. The 6 remaining Ladakhi were left to pick up the slack which hey were happy to do for double the time and double the pay; the joys and thrills of expedition life…
On 8th of June we set up the BC at 4900m on a moraine and the following day the porters finished bringing all the luggage. A quick recce up the moraine/glacier showed our initial objective, T13, quite unlike it seemed on Google Earth. The N face of T13 looked quite barren of ice with unstable snow patches and with all the lines quite hard and no easy way up as we hoped for our acclimatisation / training climb. We deemed all the lines but the West Ridge unfeasible for our group and we decided to go for it after a day of rest.
On June 11th at 3 AM we left our BC. The day before we discussed then voted if to set up an ABC up on the glacier or set off directly from BC. Laziness won…. We planned on taking bivy gear as we did not expect to move too fast (this being an acclimatisation climb) and we envisaged spending 1 night on the ridge. We moved decently over moderate ground with only a couple of belaying places up to close to 5900m. Unfortunately, unlike the Google Earth imagery, the ridge was not continuous but more a convergence of ridges running from S to N and stopping into the W ridge of T13.
From where we stopped, above a couloir of snow on the N side of the W ridge the way ahead looked long and progressively more difficult culminating with several abseils and wall climbs before reaching the summit of T13.
Despite having bivy gear with us we deemed the undertaking a tad too much for our merry band in its current configuration and we decided to bail.
Travelling on the ridge had forced us to stay on it’s southern aspect and the time of the day was quite poorly elected. The mountain choose to show us a bit of welcoming and threw behind us a volley of avalanches.
That night we were back in BC tired and a bit regretful. Not having photos of the area but only computerized imagery led us to believe that easy lines are possible on T13. Reality showed us it was not the case.
Cristina and I were pondering on our next target and since the time in BC was limited to 11 days in total (her visa running out on the 28th) we needed to decide fast and act faster. We could try and trace a line on the N face of T13 but it would be an invention, a linking of snow islands and I did not like very much the odds of being in the firing range for 3 or so days. Each night we could hear from ABC the rumble of avalanches. The alternative was the S side of T16, right opposite the N face of T13. While on the ridge I saw a beautiful, perfect, natural line – a couloir running from the bottom to the top; a perfect line.
The problem was that the upper third of the couloir seemed pure rock, possibly overhanging. Will we be able to find a way through that? The choice was between forcing a line through dangerous terrain or follow a natural, safer line with a major question mark right at the top. In the end we decided to set up an ABC in the middle of the glacier, right between the two faces, saving us a 2.5 Km slog and giving us the option to decide after watching in more detail both faces.
Karn and Prerna were having their own powwow. They reached the conclusion that all the lines on T13 and T16 were beyond what they were ready, as a team, to tackle and the farther peaks from BC that showed some more kind lines were a bit too much of a hassle. Karn decided to take Nishit and Argos down to Padum and arrange the porters for the 18th (when we hoped we should be off whatever route we will choose to try) while Prerna would remain with Tenzing in BC to keep us company on the mountain.
We feasted on pasta, lard, sausages and mutter paneer mainly due to the kitchen labour of the girls as Tenzing’s transition from the steering wheel to the laddle was tortuous and only to the point of dahl and boiled veggies. Actually, as a matter of precaution, we have brought from Romania a solid stash of blue and green cheese, lard and sausages just to be safe. Three days into the BC life all our companions whether Tibetan Budhist, Indian Budhist, non practicing Hindu and vegetarian Hindu were converted to the Romanian ways and soon the fat Romanian omelet with cheese, lard and sausages was the staple of each breakfast.
After 2 days of rest in BC and a gluttony competition, on the 14th of June, Karn, Nishit and Argos left for Padum with the mission to usher the porters our way on the 17th by evening, Cristina and I left to set up our ABC at around 5200m and to make up our mind while Prerna and Tenzing were left in BC to ponder how lard had changed their lives and to finish season 2 of the horrible series ‘Arrow’ we, the Romanians, got them addicted to on our iPad.
That night in ABC the decision was easy for us. The N face of T13 was rumbling with avalanches and rockfall. It wasn’t wise to be up there any time of the day and there was a much better alternative just opposite. We set our alarms for 3 AM.
The couloir was pretty much straight forward (as we expected it to be) with a couple 75* sections but short lived. The early start allowed us to have decent neve and the going was fairly relaxed. We simul climbed pretty much all of it with a short brewing and breakfast stop on a ledge half way up. We were hoping to get off the snow and in a sheltered spot before the sun hits the couloir as we were anticipating at the least slush and rockfall. The N face of T 13 was always looming in the background and rumbling with activity. The inner dialogue wast mostly one congratulating ourselves for staying off it…
The snow section of the couloir ended with a constriction and a foretelling of what was to come higher up. The 5-7 m or so of mixed and ice was anything but pleasant and Cristina managed to draw the short straw… Rotten ice and polished rock required some inventive shimmying up the pitch.
By the time we were done the sun was moving in and we scurried to find a sheltered place. The rocks were whizzing around and we played a bit of dodge games until we found a ledge (I am being generous to call it that way) under a small overhang and we sat down waiting. We were expecting it to be a long wait but we did not expected it to be such a hot wait. The sun was upon us and without much room to move if we wanted to stay away from the volley we stripped to base layers and put our GoreTex shells on top of our heads. It wasn’t nice not even a bit. We had all the inconvenience of a day sunbathing at the seaside without any of the perks. We both started reminiscing about our adventure up on the South Face of Shishapangma in 2011 when we had a similar situation. Slowly but surely we were boiling in our own juices….
By 5 PM the sun went over the ridge and by 7 PM the rocks stopped falling. Did another pitch on easy snow up to an icefall but since it was more of a waterfall by then and without it looking easy even frozen we decided to return to the little ledge, sort out the bivy and have an early start in the morning. We settled in after an hour or so of digging at the ice base of our ledge. We were both queasy and sun-struck. Conversation was merely functional and with a tint of irritation. We were, literally, cooked. We went to sleep and I ominously said: ‘ at least it’s not snowing!’ It didn’t take half an hour for the first snowflakes to dance down onto our bivy bags… My wife told me, quite justifiably, to shut up….
Morning dawned beautiful and, grunting and aching, we extracted ourselves from the bags, unhung ourselves from the anchor and started up. It was to be my leading day and what a glorious day was I expecting… The icefall was indeed frozen but the surprises were just at the beginning. After the warmup pitch on the frozen snow up from the bivy, at the gear recount I had the opportunity to congratulate myself for only bringing 2 ice screws. One was promptly sunk in the base of the icefall and I was expecting that the following 30 m (what was visible from the icefall) would be pleased with the remaining one. Little did I know that out of sight, cork-screwing, the icefall was to be a full rope length… I moved in between ice and rock wondering what the meaning of the ‘easier way’ could be. Half way up, with sinking heart, I had to call down to Cristina asking for the lower screw to be sent up on one of the ropes – quite a matter of dexterity as I was hanging of one tool with feet in both ice and a crack. The ice was old, brown, thin but “at least” it was brittle… Fun somehow missed during the process. Out of sight the exit was burly on mixed and I managed to clean the upper bit straight on the belay below. Not the prettiest start of a day, but heaving and grunting gets you long way if you’re persistent. Backpack followed suit then Cristina.
A pitch higher the couloir was blocked by vertical, frozen mud with rock stuck in it – some sort of dubious looking, ‘improvised’ conglomerate. An attempt up on it produced little progress, moderate amount of fear and loads of doubt. We opted for the ‘sporty’ option and we ended up negotiating overhangs and thin mixed. I felt well in control of my tools but not necessarily of my emotions too since the pro was scarce and mainly on ball-nuts, the run-outs long and the ice was thin. Luckily I was spent enough so I could not tap it too hard hence preserving some for Cristina as well on her way up.
Not knowing what expects us further and with time wasted on the ‘fake conglomerate’ we started looking for a bivy spot. The sun was moving in but since we were blessed with a cloudy day the fire-range opened a tad later that day. The bivy spot we found and excavated was good for one person if they were small; below it was a seat available for the masochistic half our our family… Since I was spent I delegated the cooking, conversation and general upkeep to Cristina while I seated myself, not at all comfortably. Promptly I was served with a cup of Maggy soup with yummy sausage bits floating in. Hunger evaporated with the last rays of sun and the only thing I was glad about wast that next day it was Cristina’s lead. Once we could negotiate the overhang above the rest looked more like good, clean rock climbing above. As the rock monkey in our family I was happy to delegate to her the glory.
Morning came bright yet it could not make up for a sleepless night, sitting on one butt-cheek. Grumpy was my middle name on the 17th June, morning.
After a few wet and snowy pitches on decent rock but with fingery moves we ended up on a beautiful face. Sun was out, the rock was dry, protection about right and I was happy seconding. We left all the bivy gear at the bivy spot and we took only what we deemed necessary. We climbed in rock shoes. We soon passed the fake summit (the white triangle visible from base camp) on the face to its right (by it’s E side) and we carried on. The higher we went the better the climb became. Towards the exit to the final ridge we both experienced some of the best rock climbing we did in the higher mountains. It was staring to get pleasurable and fun. The sun was shining yet not scorching hot and the wind, for one, stopped. The rope-lenghts were succeeding one after another and the rhythm was pleasant. After a while we could not be bothered in switching our rock shoes to negotiate the snow bands and at the base of the final arrete we left behind the backpack, the camera (we only kept my iPhone) and the big boots. We were gunning for the top and it was all rolling too nicely. The afternoon was approaching and we were keen to touchdown and start getting down.
Like in the case of T13 the final arrete was the meeting point of several ridges, including the two sides sheltering our couloir. We exited the couloir already by its left (W) side onto the face by then and the ground ahead was fairly moderate. One could see the flat, table-top, N summit of T16 ahead and the S summit above. With the end in sight we moved ahead as it was already passed 4 PM and everything just got permeated by a high sense of urgency.
The N summit was at least 1 Km away and the ridge was up and down with quite a few pinnacles in between – all pretty much at the same level, of course depending on the perspective. We were not keen on hopping on each and every of them and not planning to tag the N summit either (especially since we had no idea which is higher anyway as the IMF records only mentioned one altitude for a two summits peak). Quite a bit passed 5 PM we started heading down, down-climbing what we could, abseiling where we could not or where it was faster.
We recovered the backpack then the stuff left at the bivy and by the time the dark set in we were abseiling in the void, above the icefall, above overhangs, past the first bivy and into the snow couloir. We started down-climbing until tiredness caught up and we encountered the steeper bits. We alternated between abseils and down-climbing until the slope gave in and we started walking face out towards the glacier below. We both moved, quite apart and quite in silence as each step required both care and effort. Conversation was an unnecessary waste of energy and neither of us had any to spare. We saw a little light down on the glacier, near our ABC and we were relieved to realise that Prerna has sent someone up to help us dismantling it and head down to BC. After-all the porters were due to arrive that evening. By 3 AM we were in Base Camp with a mug of hot chocolate in hand. Sleep was never sweeter nor the sleeping bag softer.
Next morning, June the 18th, we woke up earlier than we wanted and later than needed. We started packing the Base camp and headed down towards Padum. We left the porters behind, with Tenzing, Cristina and Prerna were walking together and I sprinted down, alone, giving myself the time to digest the climb we have just completed. The weather was still perfect but on the side of hot and lots of the snow and ice we encountered on the way up has melted away. The peaks, especially the lower ones looked barren, devoid of snow and mind was racing to a proper bed and a season of sport climbing.
The snow bridge we passed on the way in has melted in the meantime and we were deprived of the luxury of having a truck waiting for us at the road-head. Stuck on the right flank of the river we hand to walk all the way to Padum, another 7 or 8 Km at least. The landscape, the breeze and the sun however were a treat even if the last miles had the tender touch of the legionnaire’s march test.
On the 19th of June we began the real ordeal as lunch time, we left Padum for Rangdum (about 6 hours) in Karn’s Duster and with all the luggage in Tenzing’s taxi. Next day, with a 4 AM start, we carried on to Kargil where we would split: Karn, Nishit and Argos were to head (with part of our luggage) towards Shrinagar while Prerna, Cristina and I were choosing the long way out via Leh which we reached that evening.
We spent a day and a half in Leh basically eating loads and going bouldering with the local crew.
From Leh we took another shared taxi (a minivan in which we squeezed 9 people and the luggage on the roof). A chicken wanted to hop in at some point but there was no room left… 20 hours later we arrived, totally dismantled in Manali with both kidneys on one side and the liver in the lugs… We recovered for a couple of days in Manali, with some sport climbing with the local guys and a copious serving of butter-chicken at Frontier dhaba.
By the 25th of June we arrived (or what was left of us by then) with the night bus in Delhi putting an end to our adventure.
Made by 4Play.in
The expedition was entirely self funded. That means that all parties involved worked their butts off needed to leave home and return to it. Cristina did what she does each work day 9 to 5 – that is engineering. I did guiding. The budget was tight and without the help of Prerna holding our hand at each corner it would have swelled. We wanted to show what alpine style meant and probably we went a bit too far… We went like in the Alps with the cheapest flight, with public transport and taking advantage of people’s free bedrooms. We brought food from home and we bought local produce. We used local talent, even if sometimes the word talent was used a bit generously. We looked around, we found our line and we went for it.
Unlike in the Alps we did not have phone (none that worked, and definitely not a SatPhone which is illegal in India), no weather forecast affixed to a door and no glass of wine at the end of the route. The fun however was unaltered.
Thanks are, however, in order and not to just one person. We wish to thank first to our team-mates for being such a great company. Cristina and I need to thank to our adoptive family in Delhi (basically Jaggi and his folk) for putting us up every time we pass through, feed us, take care of us and showing a remarkable amount of friendship and warmth. To Maninder Kohli and his legendary father, Capt. Kohli for welcoming us at their family table and in their family home. Also to all the friends (old or new) in Manali and Leh for help, advice, banter and company and to 4Play.in for the film edit above!.
A note on geography and other tidbits
We started with a list, a hand drawn map and some Google Earth imagery. We did not initially plan for T16 but we had it as a possible alternative. The IMF list gives T16 the height of 6431m and the Japanese trip report shows a two peaked mountain, photographed from the East, from Gompe Tokpo. We had / have no idea (and the IMF either) which of the two summits of T16 is higher: the N summit (the flat top) or the S summit (the pointed top). From the photographs and from base camp we believed it to be the S summit – now we think it might be the N summit or a pinnacle in between. In either case we believe the difference in height (in whichever direction one swings) is quite small but the length of the ridge separating them (we guess over 1 Km) and the drop in between warrants for a neat distinction. Actually most of the peaks identified there are along long ridges but not being a geographer I will not venture any opinion on prominence and such. In either case we doubt a bit, based on our altimeter readings, the official height of either of the N or S peak as being 6431 and we believe they are closer to 6300 than 6400. Again a matter not for us to settle though.
Regardless all of the above, and given the circumstances, we are not comfortable claiming the “virgin” summit of T16 as the N summit may be higher and the two are, at least as it stands now, bundled together. We are happy however to tie ourselves to our route, the obvious, logical line from the bottom to the top of the S summit. The peaks seem to have no names up these valleys as locals do not tend to venture up them. It’s not our place to name any of them, not even those we momentarily ascended. We would like, however, to name the route we climbed and by only possible and obvious name: Supercouloir (both due to the line and its resemblance to it’s French counterpart). The line goes up in excess of 1000m (close to 1200m) and grade wise we propose ED snow 75* max, WI 4+, M5/6, 6b, C1
(Photos below: map and the two photos from Gompe Tokpo from K Sakamoto’s report, the Google Earth imagery of the area and the peaks identified, a view from +6100m, at the end of the couloir proper, of both the N (left) and S (right) summits of T16). Not fully visible from this angle the 1 Km ridge in between.)