In July/August I led my third BSES expedition to the remote Nubra valley in Ladakh. This however was my fifth visit to the area having spent time there prior to the first BSES expedition and taking a private expedition to climb Telthop in 2010
Ladakh is situated in the extreme north of India, sandwiched between Pakistan and China and falls into two separate states known as Jammu and Kashmir. The area has an unsettled past and as a result some areas have only recently opened up to foreign expeditions. this of course means there are many fairly easy circa 6000m unclimbed peaks to “have a go at”.
We arrived in Leh after an overnight stop in the humidity of Dehli. The early morning flight gave us superb views of the greater Himalayas and a taste of what was to come.
After Delhi, Leh was a blast of fresh air, or lack of it. At 3150m the air is clear and fresh, the sun strong and the atmosphere chilled out ( as you cannot rush anywhere anyway). Its a perfect place to chill out, unwind and acclimatise to the altitude.
The town is a mix of Buddhism and Islam and a real cultural melting pot. It is also a mecca for dreamy eyed tourists hanging around in the bakeries and cafes looking for the “real” India. Maybe a visit to the slums of Calcutta would be slightly more accurate for a country where 500 million people still live without electricity, or is this just the cynicism of an old man. The skyline above the town is dominated by the old palace ( feature image ) and the new Japanese built stupa.
Two days of this tranquility interspersed with kit checks, buying supplies, eating chocolate cake and briefings were enough and on the morning of day three we quit our hotel for a convoy of four wheel drive jeeps and turning north we headed towards the Khardung La.
This pass, claimed as the highest ( 5600m) motorable road in the world crosses the Ladakh range of mountains that separate the Indus and Shyok river valleys.
However the view north to the Saltoro and Eastern Karakorum ranges are what makes it worth while. The 2nd highest ( I think it is still unclimbed ) peak in the world lurks on the horizon ( Sasser Kangri 2 East) whilst below the road snakes away down to the Shyok river valley.
If you thought the trip up was scary then the trip down on the north side will put it into perspective. For the next 10 miles there are generally two or three bulldozers constantly working to keep the road open. Landslides, rockfalls, snow, ice and floods all conspire continually to close this road and once at the bottom you feel like you have spent an hour in a washing machine after bumping and lurching through the newly bulldozed, floodwashed and just potholed sections of the road..
After a brief stop at the new ( opened by the Dalai Lama in 2010 ) Gompa at Diskit we arrived at Hundar in time for an evening meal and our first night in tents.
Hundar was for us the end of the road, and in fact until earlier this year was for all foreign tourists as far as you could go on this road. This year however the zone of restriction was pushed back to Turtok, the border at Pakistan still however remains closed, and the bridge at Hundar now looks innocuous without its army guard. Crossing this road the next morning we started our two day walk to Wachen and the point at which we would split the group into two separate valleys.
The route follows an impressive gorge and then climbs up and out of the river valley to give you views of some of the mountaineering objectives ahead.
From Scarchen the currently unclimbed Jungdung Kangri can be seen rising on the horizon flanked on its left by Samgyal one and two and on its right in the distance the snow pyramid of Dawa peak.
Wachen reached without incident we rested for 24 hours and then split our team into the two separate valley groups. I trekked into the P valley and Mick took the S valley groups onwards past Hundar Dok for another two days trek to their base camp.
The expedition is not just about mountaineering, there are in fact many facets to a BSES expedition inc Leadership Development, Youth Development and Science and our scientific programme under Neil Smith included this year Human Physiology, Studies of freshwater invertebrates in a high altitude lake, Glaciology, Soil studies and Botany. These reports have been published and can be accessed here.
The results of the High Altitude research into AMS can be viewed HERE
In the P valley ( short for Palzampiu ) we established our base camp and lost no time in leapfrogging into the hanging valley below Jungdung kangri to establish the Advance base camp for Dawa peak.
The weather stayed settled with clear skies allowing me to do a recce of the conditions on Samgyal 1 with Olly Russell. Leaving base camp at 0400hrs Olly and I summited Sam 1 5860m at around 1000am in fabulous conditions.
Two days later saw half the group camped at ABC prior to the glacier training with Dave Farrow so Andy Mason and I took the opportunity to recce Dawa peak 5980m, leaving ABC at 0200hrs we summited at approx. 0800hrs in fabulous conditions. The ascent is non technical with only a short section of perhaps 40/50 degree ice just below the summit. It is however a long cold trudge up the glacier from base camp with a horrible moraine to cross in the dark.
The two mountaineering objectives for the groups recced I turned my attention to some of the unclimbed peaks on the north side of the valley. There were two peaks that appealed, one called Ajangliung and another unnamed peak just above base camp. I knew that Ajangliung had been climbed by a French team back in the 90’s but that there was no record of the other peak having been climbed.
The hanging valley underneath Ajangliung gave a great days walk out to recce the approach and the route to the summit via some steep snow and rocks was mapped out.
This peak was not however to be, snow storms descended on us for five days leaving an unconsolidated layer of five or six inches of fresh snow on all the glaciers and ice fields. I took an unaccompanied climb up Sam 2 5760m to assess the conditions and realised that anything with a steep snow slope was out for the next four or five days.
Instead I turned my sights onto the unclimbed and unnamed peak which had a rocky ridge approach above base camp.
I had ignored this peak in previous years in favour of more technical snow and ice ascents but with conditions being what they were decided to give this a bash.
Leaving base camp alone at 0400hrs I waded the river ( thankfully low but still bloody cold) and took a line up the eastern flank to gain the south ridge. This was all very straightforward although a bit loose and the main ridge was gained by 0800hrs. The ridge itself was interesting with some awkward climbing on very loose rock but the difficulties were short lived and the unusual summit, a 6m high gendarme was reached at 0945hrs somewhat frustratingly GPS’d at 5995m. The gendarme was climbable and after a few awkward moves I was standing on the top.
Well chuffed at this first and relatively easy ascent I made my way back down to base camp for a well earned coffee and chocolate biscuit, the luxuries of life. Not one for naming things but given the shape of the summit I decided to call this one the mushroom ( Shamo in Ladakhie ) the sherpas liked this so Shamo it became.
My time was drawing short, the group had a five day trek out across the Lasermoula la, I however had to take a direct route out via Hundar in order to get back to Leh and the UK for some other expedition commitments.
Despite the dodgy snow conditions Andy, Jiske, Louis, myself and Mike decided to have a last day pop at Sam 1. We summited at approx 1100 in glorious weather. My second time to the top in two weeks.
Meanwhile over in the S valley Mick had wasted no time in a recce of the glaciers and possible peaks around the area.
ABC was established at the head of the south valley system and a peak indicated on the map as 5850m was decided upon. This was to be a first ascent attempt as there was no record of this peak being previously climbed with the local sherpas.
An attempt was made in deteriorating weather conditions via the south west ridge and the team got as far as the large gendarme on the final summit ridge. However worsening conditions forced a retreat from this point frustratingly just below the summit.
The conditions did not improve over the next few days and the decision was made to abandon ABC and to try for a summit of an alternative peak in the main Thanglasgo valley on the walk back to Leh.
A summit of 5690m was identified to the west of the Lasermu La and a successful attempt was made on this peak via the main glacier to the north as opposed to the L.la ridge.
Finally a small peak was climbed to the east of the Lasermu La by the majority of the group, as if we had not by that time accomplished enough.