Monkey business in the Karnak gorgeMonday 11 September, 2017
Words: Cosmin Andron
Photography: Cristina Pogacean, Jonathan Parker, Cosmin Andron
We arrived in Delhi mid-August, hopeful and with loads of luggage. Cristina and Nasim (her partner) were aiming for H17 in the Zanskar valley, an unclimbed granite monolith. I was to join them as logistical support but I also had plans of my own: last year, during our T16 expedition, I noticed, on a side valley, a stunning mixed couloir that I wanted to attempt once the girls were up on their wall and if conditions were allowing.
A day later we were in Leh where we spent half a week running after supplies, getting the luggage overland from Delhi (thank you Jaggi, Prerna and Gopal) trying to organise transport (with the help of our Ladakhi friends) and getting ready for departure. When Nasim arrived in Leh we were ready and we set off the next day towards Padum.
For my part Leh gave me a rather unpleasant parting shot: a two-day disabling food poisoning (my first since I began coming to India) followed by a most annoying chest infection that still accompanies me now, three weeks later, while I write this in Manali…
After the two days bone-re-setting journey from Leh to Padum we landed in the same guest house like last year. I took a day off to tend to my lungs; Sadly Nasim promptly fell ill with similar ailment. Cristina did the last shopping. In the next days we tried to hustle porters, then Cristina and I went to check out the intended BC site. Nasim visited the local hospital and came back with unfortunate recommendations. Our recce of the BC brought mixed news: a problematic river crossing to reach the BC for the girls, dry conditions on the wall which was well received but also inexistent ice on my intended line which made it unfeasible. At the local doctor’s recommendation, Nasim had to leave the expedition. For us (Cristina and I) this also meant we had to rethink the whole plan. We spent a few days in the Suru valley, bouldering and trying to fix my chest infection. The first part of the plan worked out perfectly; the second not at all.
We were hoping to find on the outer rim of Zanskar something feasible but, unfortunately, it was not the case. Nun and Kun proved to be a logistical nightmare that was not guaranteeing any outcome other than expenses; the rock faces around Beyul were crumbling only at the sight of wishful climbers. We decided to try our luck in Himachal which was on our route back, overland, to Delhi, in a place where in 2013 I saw some worth attempting granite faces. We left for Leh where we were blessed with a lucky encounter and a total overhaul of our plans.
A chance phone call with Sukrit made us improvise further. The 4Play.in team were in the area filming what Sukrit called “a big wall project”. Nothing specific; nothing more. He asked if we want to join the caravan. We said yes and next afternoon we were resetting our bones again in a truck, this time over the Tanglang La (5328m). Few kilometres into our trip we decided to ask the obvious question: “where are we, actually, going?” As it turned out Kumar Gaurav and Madhu Raj were heading to the Karnak Valley (Ladakh) to attempt a repeat of “Samsara is Nirvana” a route opened by Giovanni Quirici, Guy Scherrer, Claude Chardonnes, Ellie Chevieux and Philippe Chabloz ten years ago. I knew of Giovanni, I knew of the route; I had no clue where Karnak valley was nor how it looked and the research time had long ago expired. The 4Play.in crew was accompanying the climbers to document the climb; we were hitch-hiking on their expedition. Cristina and I thought that if all else fails will have a go at “Samsara” ourselves when the guys are done.
The 13 Km from the Lamasery where the truck dropped us to the spot below “Samsara” where we set up BC were made easier by finding some ponies half way through. Nevertheless, Cristina and I, decided to pack the minimum at the lamasery: a double set of camalots C3 and C4 from # 000 to # 2, a handful of Russian soft pitons, a 10mm/60m Tendon climbing rope, a 6mm/70m Tendon Aramid tag line, a Latok Base tent from Rab, a week’s supply of Lyofood, some lard, a stove, two sleeping bags, the clothes on our backs and the hopes for something good. The hike along the river was great. At 4100 – 4200m altitude the river-bed was flowing through magnificent and huge limestone walls. The rock and the ambience reminded us of the Taghia Gorge in the Morrocan Atlas, but ‘just’ over 2000m higher… It was a hidden limestone paradise in a granite country. We were a bit worried that our rack intended for a granite wall may not take us very high on these ones and will have to fall back to attempting the runout but bolted Samsara.
The first two days in BC, for our team of two, were days of restlessness (for Cristina) and almost futile attempts to recover (for me). Since each day at 12 at noon the rain showers would start we were in a rather gloomy mood. Kumar and Madhu oblivious to the conditions were hurling themselves at their project and the 4Play.in team was shooting from all angles. On 3rd of September, to gage if I am out for good or I still have a fighting chance, I hopped on the first pitch of “Samsara” and the outcome was that next day we should go up… We spotted a line that we thought might go on the wall to the right (West) of the “Samsara” wall. We called it the “Hanuman wall”. Only if the weather would cooperate… but there was no way to know so we trusted in our good Karma.
Monkey Business, 14 pitches, 6a+ (approx 4200 m alt to approx 4700 m alt)
4 sept 2017, Hanuman wall, Karnak Valley, Ladakh, India
We had a lazy start on the morning of the 4th September. Kumar and Madhu were already up while Cristina and I were not sure how to read the weather. Procrastination over, by 9:30 am Cristina started the first pitch. We were carrying two 30L backpacks with sleeping bags, food, water, rain gear and shoes. The leader would haul hand-over-hand his/her backpack on the tagline; the second would climb with his/her backpack on. We decided to lead in short blocks and Cristina was off.
The first two pitches were a beautiful and compact face. Throughout the whole route, we had very difficult choices to make between the best climbing available (and there was lots of it) but on compact faces protectable only by bolts (of which we carried none) or more protectable options on mostly friable and loose rock. We went for the best (for us) compromise.
From pitch three I took over and I belayed from a massive cave on the N / NW aspect of the face. This gave us hope that we might find something similar higher up if the rain was to catch up with us. Next two pitches moved us on the Western aspect of the face and alongside a chute running down it. On pitch 5 I attempted an overhang for purely esthetical reasons. At the lip massive unstable blocks made me reconsider my priorities and after down-climbing a few moves I pounded in a piton and lowered off to the belay then moved leftwards on a crimpy face.
From pitch 7 Cristina took over again, leaving the chute and back onto the N aspect of Hanuman wall. The delicate set off from the belay stance left buried two pitons that I could not take out on a tricky slab. Cristina led with the pack on and I was happy it was her and not me. Next pitch although crumbly in parts was enjoyable and we passed another small cavern to which we could retreat if need be. By now we were seeing our little tent down in the valley and we were thinking about the soon approaching sunset. From here on the character of the climbing changed. Progressively poorer rock meant much more care in route finding and in not dropping blocks over the belayer or the rope. By pitch 10 Cristina was leading in the dark. My last two pitches were both loose and unenjoyable. We were trying to reach the top of the face but I had to stop four or so meters below the ridge-line when a hold crumbled in my hands and made me fill my pants. We decided to call it a night, put a good percent of our rack into a hopeful anchor and abseiled to the first prayer of a ledge. A few good minutes with the hammer in the rubble meant we could sit in our sleeping bags and if overly ambitious pretend we could also curl down a little bit. The fire down in the valley made us wonder what we were looking for up there. I spent the night coughing and spitting.
Morning did not shine on fresh faces and we were both grateful for good weather (except a few snowflakes in the night) and keen to get going. Bones wanted otherwise… We went back to the high point and Cristina took the lead to finish the last pitch. Two meters below the crest we valued more our personal physical integrity above anything else and we called it good. We started building anchors and descend. Five 60m abseils later our lead rope got stuck; no matter how much tugging and shaking we applied to it, it refused to release. We had to cut it from where we could safely reach leading on the Aramid tagline and count our blessings. We continued our way down on 35m abseils on the tag line and some down scrambling. We followed the chute on a shorter path down that the ascent line. The wall did not want to let us off the hook so easily and orchestrated a last mischief. The penultimate abseil halted about 10 m above the ground on an overhanging chossy dihedral and we had to build the largest abseil anchor of the whole route…
Lunch was sweet at our little tent and we were wondering again about our good karma that granted us two days of good weather. Just perfect for some Monkey Business!
I was (as have always been in the last four years) supported by Tendon.
Special thanks go to our Indian extended network of friends some of whom are truly our far-away extended family: Jaggi and Prerna in Delhi, Jami in Leh and Suru, on the road and Manali Sukrit and the 4Play.in crew (Abhijeet, Goli, Prashant and Praveen), Kumar and Madhu for letting us cruise with them and to Jonathan for the stimulating BC conversations and warm support.
NB. For any potential interested repeating parties: do not climb our last two pitches. Instead avoid the final white wall by its left as facing it, on the slab, to the base of the overhanging pinnacle. From there, if adventurous, can climb that and continue by the ridge to… somewhere southward… or from the base of the overhanging pinnacle in not more than a couple of abseils down the W face (behind the ridge) and some scrambling you should be on the main trekking path. Had we been able to poke heads over the crumbly crest it would have saved us 10 or so abseils back on the N face. The W side descent, which we saw only when hiking back to the Lamasery, is by far easier and preferable to our line of descent. Unlike Giovanni Qurici and his team we entered the gorge from the other end.