First ascent of Telthop 6185m, Nubra Valley, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India, 9th Aug 2014.
Expedition members Chris Horobin (UK), Jane Horobin (UK), Henry Latti (FIN), Bob Shiels (UK), Matt Barnsley (UK), Roland Chuter (UK), Nigel Sharma (UK) Chuck Boyd (USA), Tashi Phunchok Zangola ( IND) Phujung Bhote (NEP), Dawa Narbu Sherpa ( IND), Virender Singh (Liason Officer) (IND)
Support Team Gokul Chantyal, Dawa Jeba Bhutia, Tundup Namgyal, Lobzang Smanla, Stanzin Dawa, Sanjay and Anil and 10 Manali horses.
High summer, the weather in the UK had been consistently hot and sunny for almost four weeks now turning the grass golden and the leaves on the trees a tired looking dried out green. The magpies hopped, skipped and toddled between the roadkills, a result of the one sided clash between new young wildlife and the motorway as we made our way towards London.
I had a strange sensation in the pit of my stomach, a sort of latent churning, butterflies is the terminology, I realised that I was feeling nervous and excited, emotions that are harder to achieve the older and more experienced you get.
I was going to climb a mountain, nothing bigger than I had done before, in an area that I had been to before so why was I getting the collywobbles ? Well this was the second attempt at this hill, our last try is documented HERE and it had not gone according to plan. Would we get to the mountain, would it be within our capabilities to climb, would there be any issues with the health of the team, the Indian Army Liaison officer, The Indian Mountaineering Federation, so many wildcards, so exciting, so removed from the general process of a commercial mountaineering trip with its published rate of success.
We joined the M25 and cruised up through the wasteland of unloved concrete and graffitied viaducts , secretive lockups next to faceless retail estates which strive to ensure they are the same as the next one, comforting the visitor by ensuring that their visit will be stress free through familiarity. I was escaping.
With the car purple parked we shuttled towards the airport, the great building which should stipulate on a hugh banner strung across its facade ‘Please leave all consideration towards your fellow human beings outside” We joined the shuffling, jostling and latently hostile queue for the Jet airways flying sardine tin and 9 hours later stepped out into the early morning sweatbox of New Delhi. The representative from RIMO ( Our In-Country agents and logistics organisers ) was there to meet us and swished us away through the traffic to the sanctity of our air-conditioned hotel.
The team were already assembled in the foyer, some having been in India for a few days experiencing the touristy things that are an absolute prerequisite for first time visitors to the country. Most of the guys I knew ( Bob and Henry had been with me in 2010 ) Roly and Nigel I had not met before although I felt that I knew them due to the number of telephone and e-mail conversations we had had in the build up to the expedition. We sat down and chatted, in the background I was aware of a thin, well tanned guy with a long greying ponytail, an ageing hippy I guessed, most hotel foyers in India seem to have one of them so I paid him no more attention.
That afternoon we attended the IMF briefing which went sort of like this. It is of course abbreviated.
IMF Representative: “Welcome to India, I hope your expedition is successful”
Me: “Thank you”
“This is your Liaison Officer, Virender”
“Pleased to meet you”
“Do you promise to look after him, feed him, treat him as a part of your team and let him climb with you”
“You can climb the hill stipulated in your permissions documentation from the Indian Army and Minister of the Interior, you can climb any adjacent mountains but you will have to pay additional fees for them, you must not leave any rubbish at the campsites and must strive to keep the mountains as clean as you found them”
“Now you must pay me $1200.00”
“Before I do this I would just like to ensure that we are clear about which mountain I am intending to climb” I unfolded my well thumbed and somewhat fragile map of the area on the table in front of him, its depicted contours full of epic struggles, previous first ascents and unfulfilled dreams. “Its this one here, marked as Telthop”
“Yes no problem”, not even looking at the map. “I will give you a receipt”.
Hmmmmmm, in order to get this far we had had to obtain an X Visa; ask VSF Global (the company who issue visas in the UK) about an X Visa and they will tell you there is no such thing. You must apply for an entry visa which is forbidden to anyone other than an Indian national however first you must get a letter from the Indian Mountain Federation, the Minister of Home Affairs in India and the Indian Army because the area in which the mountain lies is a heavily military controlled one. Once you have these letters (which are notoriously difficult to obtain) you have to take them to VSF in London, personally, where they will complete the paperwork for a visa you cannot get and send everything to the Indian Consulate who will then issue you with an X or mountaineering Visa, confused ?
This process had once again been so fraught that we had at one point given up and decided to apply for Tourist Visas and to change our objective to a regularly climbed hill simply in order to salvage our trip and the cost of our flights. Matt and Roly had in fact done this in the morning then our permissions had come through in the afternoon, with only five days to go before our departure. Luckily I had established a relationship with the First Secretary’s Aide so a quick call to her had these changed and ours in the system.
It’s no wonder that some people just do not want the hassle of climbing in Ladakh on the restricted peaks; but hey if it was easy then these hills would have already been climbed. Good to see however that the IMF take these things seriously.
Back at the hotel we reconvened for an early dinner where I was surprised to see that the ageing hippy had joined us at the table. He was introduced to me as Chuck, an American (no shit!) climber whose group had been delayed in the US due to visa issues. In conversation I established his considerable climbing pedigree, K2, Everest etc etc so when he asked if he could tag along with us to Leh the next morning I was more inclined to say no as I felt humbled in his presence. However my ego aside Chuck ( Who later became known as American Grey Eagle ) joined us on the flight then joined us on the expedition.
Leh is one of my favourite melting pots, a city on the Indus river in the middle of the northern Himalayas, a place where Buddhism and Islam meets and is at peace. A place where donkeys, cows and dogs vie unmolested over the garbage in the streets, a place where starry eyed and face pierced youngsters who have shed the clothing of their country of birth in favour of trousers whose crotch is at their ankles and shirts that hang on their skinny frames as shapely as sacks on a scarecrow sit around outside their favourite bakery as they absorb the “real” India. A place where people come to stand on one leg as the sun goes down in search of inner peace ( Well it served Jethro Tull quite well so who am I to knock it ). Where well heeled trekkers bump shoulders with serious mountaineers and cultural tourists seeking their fix of eco friendly tourism arrange the home stay holidays, I love it.
We spent two days there acclimatising, ( Its at 3400m ) drinking cold Cokes, eating chocolate cake, meeting our support team and organising our climbing equipment before departing for Hundar via the Khardung La, still signed as the highest motorable road in the world, although I understand that Wikipedia would advise differently now. Its still an adventure, the pass is at 5400m and the road requires the permanent and non stop work of at least three fully equipped bulldozer teams to keep it open on a day to day basis. Once over its down, down down into the Shyok river valley, past Desket where a massive statue of Buddha, blessed and officially sanctified by the Dalai Lama in 2011 gazes serenely back up the valley towards the distant but disputed Chinese border.
Hundar is a lovely little town of rivers and greenery in the otherwise dry and arid Shyok valley, it sits on the road that ultimately terminates at the still closed border with Pakistan. It has a massive army base, a unique sand dune system where they run camel rides and surrounding the town a really bizarre set of geological features with some of the biggest scree slopes I have ever seen anywhere.
However, we were there simply as a jumping off spot and the next day took a short walk up the start of the Thanglasgo valley to camp one which was on the other side of the bridge which in 2010 had been washed away and had prevented us from accessing our mountain of choice.
The next day of trekking I had been advised by my friend Steve Findlay, who had accessed the valley in 2011, could be difficult at places and was especially vulnerable to heavy rain. No surprises then that the first bridge we came to had been washed out, river waded with a wee bit of excitement we pressed on. The valley steepened into more of a gorge, then turning a corner we were presented with a fantastic view of sheer cliffs of mud and rock sculpted into castellations by the rain.
In years gone by when the climate was warmer the Himalayas would have seen rain storms on an elemental scale. These mighty downpours would wash boulders, mud, stones etc into the lower valleys which then filled with said debris up to a depth of many hundreds of metres. Over the following millennia the rivers cut into these softer deposits forming the features we have today. The problem with these softer deposits is that they dissolve in rain so walking under cliffs composed largely of mud in which there are ( sometimes loosely held ) precariously balanced boulders is a bit of a lottery best avoided.
No problem today with the sun shining down but this in itself created issues with heat and the fact that in order to get to camp two you need to climb 900m from a base of 3400m. This is a big ask but the view from camp two is awesome as you rise out of the valley and get views over to the Karakoram. Combine this with the fact that you have a wonderfully cold river to bathe in and that at last the nights are cold enough to give you the use of your sleeping bags and a comfortable rest is reward enough for the days trials.
The next day another four hours and 500m of ascent took us to our base camp at approx 4800m in a lovely wide valley full of Marmots, wild flowers and grazing Yaks. The views in all directions were simply outstanding.
Back the way we had come the western Karakoram could be seen behind the Thanglasgo peaks which dominated the near horizon. Peak 25 could be seen tantalisingly in the direction of the Siachen glacier. However of more importance the line of peaks which dominated our view to the south were the reason we had come all this way, spent hours trying to get visa’s and permissions, spent individually thousands of pounds on flights, kit, getting fit etc etc.
A line of five peaks dominated the view rising sheer out of the valley floor for 1500m. They all looked pretty impressive but the furthest away was our objective which could just bee seen peeking over its closest neighbours ridges. It did not look particularly easy, both of its accessible ridges had rocky steps whilst its dominant face ( Northwest in orientation ) looked steep in places and potentially heavily crevassed. However it looked awesome to me, beautiful in the early evening light, ascetically pleasing, a real mountain, a real challenge. We could not see what the access to the lower glacier was like, that would have to wait. We settled down, nursing our headaches through a much quicker than should have been achieved ascent profile and tried to sleep.
Day four of trekking, it should have been a rest day, not a trekking day, given that we had climbed 1700m in the previous three days but we opted (stupidly) to do a carry to advance base ( or where we hoped ABC could be placed ) simply in order to get a view of the lower glacier and assess its secrets.
Heavily loaded with tents, cooking equipment, all the necessary climbing gear etc etc etc we headed up the valley after breakfast. The Marmots whistled their alarm calls all around us, the Yaks looked at us with surprise and the sun shone down on our capped heads from a wonderfully blue sky that can only be experienced at high altitude. The ease of forward progression was not to last, 20 mins after leaving the camp the valley was blocked from side to side by a big grey moraine which swallowed the river and struck fear into the ankles. Now to those of you who are used to alpine and other moraines I can honestly advise that Ladakh is the home to the mothers of all moraines. To those of you who do not understand the concern or have never experienced the dubious experience of crossing a moraine let me enlighten you.
Moraines are caused as the mountains on either side of the valley are eroded by wind, frost, snow, rain etc etc. In short the mountains crumble into boulders that fall down to form hugh piles, given enough time these piles of stones accumulate and join up with similar piles of stones from the mountains on the other-side of the valley to create a pile of stones anything up to 100m high which block the valley for kilometres. Now these piles of stones/boulders have to be climbed and then crossed. The size of the stones/boulders vary from a hand sized stone to boulders the size of a transit van. They are all precariously balanced against each other and are prone to topple on you if you touch them, step on them, look at them the wrong way. An hour of moraine walking leaves you physically and mentally exhausted. It took us four hours to reach the site of ABC which was at 5100m and a further three hours to get back to camp. I had no sense of humour left by the time I got back and slunk into my tent to nurse a vile headache, sore knees and ankles.
The next day we rested, listened to music, read books, stalked Marmots, frightened the Yaks, drank copious amounts of tea and coffee ( God bless Chuck for his supply of ground Cawfee ) and decided not to hang about but to go for it the next day.
Next day I felt great, I had had a great nights sleep, had a great toilet experience in the morning, no headache, I was psyched. We left Base camp at 1500hrs and arrived at ABC at approx 1700, we had a better route through the moraines and had only our sleeping kit and additional clothing to carry which facilitated our ease of passage. Despite tents being sited on the moraine ( or the flattest bit we could find ) I slept for about two hours. I was calm, feeling great and when I saw the head-torches come alive just before 0030 I was up and at em, dressed awaiting a cup of coffee.
The only thing that is worse than climbing a moraine is climbing a moraine in the dark, we had approx 250m of bloody steep moraine to climb to reach the start of the glacier, even this did not worry me and I was up it like a rat up a drainpipe and at the bottom of the glacier in just over an hour. There now follows one of the great questions about the ascent of this hill, we had ascertained that the easiest passage onto the glacier lay at the right hand side where it was lowest and least steep. So why we decided to climb the left hand side which was 80 degrees of hard brittle water ice eventually laying back to 40 degrees after 130m or so is a question best handled by hindsight and the obvious answer of excessive enthusiasm heavily laden with stupidity.
However climb it we did, after about 15m or so of climbing I realised the absolute stupidity of our choice as my heart hammered, my breath rasped in my ears, my calves and forearms burnt with the energy required to sink crampon and axe placements in the hard ice. However we were committed and I was not gonna waste any more time in backing off to find an easier way on the Right hand side.
The group eventually gathered again as the glacier settled down to a much more easily climbed angle. We dispensed with the ropes, put our stupidity behind us and agreed to get back on course with a crossing of the glacier to access the ridge. This proceeded smoothly enough until Roly found a crevasse by unexpectedly falling into it. Not fully falling into it but enough to give us all a wake up and rope up as we should have done earlier. Dawn by this time was starting to infiltrate the sky casting a grey light over our proceedings. We could see that the route to the ridge we had intended to take was heavily crevassed and that the ridge itself was much steeper than we had appreciated. The more vertical section had massive crevasses in them as well. So we decided to climb the face and access the ridge much higher up.
This was a great call, we wove our way up and through the larger crevasses making good time on hard snow and ice which varied between 50 and 70 degrees for 5 or 600m. We made the higher section of the ridge and met the rising sun full in the face and a view of the early morning Karakoram which just cannot be easily described.
However above us lay the rocky steps, we made our way up the much easier angled slope to find that the main rocky step could be avoided by a steep ( 80 degrees ) snow pitch. By this time I was broken, exhausted, my arms were like jelly so we asked Phujung Bote to fix a rope on it and we ( Bob excepted) jummared our way up this last icy obstacle.
The last bit between us and the summit now was about 100ft of grade two scrambling on steep ( vertical in places ) loose choss. At 6150m this was not a pleasant experience, any mistake would have seen a body hurtling down the S/East face for approx 600m to the glacier below. This of course focused the brain and made everyone ensure that what they were about to pull on was going to remain attached to the face. Fairly soon there was a non stop rain of boulders going down as various holds were pulled off and discarded in favour of something more reliable.
At 1030 after nine and a half hours of climbing we were on the summit, the Karakoram stretched out from West to East as far as the eye could see. K2, G1,G2 and G3 and Masherbrum dominated the view to the N/West whilst the Saser Kangris dominated the N/East, what a view, what a feeling, the first people to stand on top of this useless pile of Snow, Ice and Rock. Backs patted, hands shaken we turned around and started the hardest bit, the descent on tired and wobbly legs. It would have been great if we could have abbed the face, truth is we did not have sufficient rope to allow us to do this so we decided to drop down the scree slopes to the South East glacier and from then gain the main valley above ABC.
I am not going to go into this in too much detail except to say it was hell, 60 degree ( scree would be far too nice a term for it ) slopes of dirt, rocks snow and ice. Boulders cascaded all around dislodged by others above us. By the time I had made the valley above ABC it was 1500 hours and I still had at least two hours of moraine walking to make the camp. Head pounding, dehydrated and totally exhausted I made camp at 1730 hours having now been on the go ( two hours of sleep excepted ) for approx 36 hours.
I crashed into my tent, summoned the energy to get undressed, drink some tea and get into my sleeping bag before entering a world of dreamless sleep.
The walk out took three days to Hundar, the feared deterioration in the weather never happened, this gave us an extra two days back in Leh to chill out, go rock climbing, rafting, drinking beer etc etc etc.
On the way back over the Khardung La we arranged to be met on the top by a pick up full of mountain bikes. The distance between the top of the Khardung La and Leh is approx 37K, The vertical drop is just over 2K. The road is half dirt track and on the lower half hardtop. Matt, Roly and myself did this in around 50mins, a most excellent way to finish a most excellent trip.