International Kishtwar Expedition 2016 10/09/2016
Caro North – First ascents in Kishtwar
“First ascents of impressive granite peaks in the middle of the Indian Himalayas, more specifically in the Kishtwar region,” this had been a dream of mine for many years. But for a while, I couldn’t find any climbing partners for such a long, distant and expensive expedition. However, this year everything finally fell into place in the pre-monsoon season – two of my friends were ready for the adventure.
So in the middle of May, I met Tola (Cristobal Señoret Zobeck) and Max (Max Didier), members of the Mammut Team Chile, in Delhi. We had met before in Patagonia, where we had completed our first approach and attempt on Cerro Torre together in 2013.
This was my third time in India, but it was the first visit for the two South American climbers, which gave rise to a few humorous situations when the impetuous South American style met the very traditional Indian culture. It was a clash of two completely different worlds.
Following an official visit to the IMF (Indian Mountain Foundation), we set off directly for the Himalayas. In 40°C, we started out in our mini-bus from Delhi and, after three long days on initially packed and later completely deserted roads, arrived in Gulabgarh in the Kishtwar region (Jammu and Kashmir). This was the end of the road and we had to continue our journey on foot from here. We had to load our climbing gear, camping equipment and food to cater for six people (as well as us, there was also our cook Dawa, his assistant Pasang and the Liaison Officer) for four weeks onto fifteen horses for the three-day trek to our base camp.
Shortly before the base camp, for a while it looked as if we would need to turn back as a snow field was blocking the way. The horse drivers were worried that their animals would break their hooves. However, after some encouragement and preparation of the path, they finally decided to attempt it. Each time a horse broke through up to its stomach, my breath caught in my throat. But they quickly fought their way back out and we made it to our flat camping site. I could hardly believe that we actually had trees in our base camp. Pure luxury!
It was then time to start exploring, acclimatizing and carrying gear. We set up our ABC (Advanced Base Camp) in a little col at 4,500 meters opposite the imposing granite faces.
It started to snow heavily during our first night. We had to keep beating the snow off our little tent. We were sharing two-person tents in groups of three and using two sleeping bags to save weight. It was pretty cramped, but at least it wasn’t cold. The next morning, we climbed up higher. Even at 6 am, the sun was so strong that the snow was becoming menacingly soft. At times we fell through up to our hips and the snow started to slide. Suddenly, a threatening cloud of snow came toward us. Luckily it passed over leaving us unhurt, but it was a huge shock at the time and we quickly climbed back to our tent. It was frustrating. We wanted to reach the next highest col, but instead we found ourselves having lunch back at the base camp.
This was followed by a few days of bad weather which we spent climbing bouldering blocks in the base camp.
We got on well, had a lot of laughs and enjoyed the tasty Indian food, but our thoughts kept coming back to the granite faces: Would we manage to climb up there? Would the weather permit it? When?
This was followed by three days of good weather with bright blue skies, and we headed back to our ABC. This time, we got up at 1 am to tackle the steep couloir while it was still frozen and reach the higher col by sunrise. The atmosphere was unbelievable and the rock faces were now looming up steeply above us.
But we had a problem: Max and Tola couldn’t feel their feet any more due to the cold. This was alarming, as we didn’t want to develop frostbite. It took an hour for the feeling to come back and for me to be able to embark on the first pitch. At long last, we were starting to climb my dream faces. But the euphoria was short-lived. There was even more snow than we had thought on the face and it was proving a significant obstacle. A few beautiful kilometers were followed by sections in wet conditions and through ice and snow, which had accumulated on every little ledge, until we came to a snow-covered slab from which there was no way to climb any higher. I tried, looked and searched, but unfortunately it was impossible and, with a heavy heart, I was forced to rappel back down again. Our disappointment was great and the fear that we wouldn’t climb anything at all here was growing.
We then had nothing to do all day but sit around, the hours simply refused to pass. The waiting was terrible, but this is an inevitable part of expeditions.
We waited until just after midnight to begin our descent, to ensure the approach couloir would be frozen, and then try again on the other side of the mountain. First we had to tackle another steep snow couloir, no easy task as it was so soft, but then the fun began: we were climbing on top granite. It was very compact to begin with, which called for maximum concentration. I quickly found myself standing far above my last camalot, and it was a very small one at that. But there was no other option for securing, so I simply had to trust and keep going. It is at these moments that I am 100% focused, considering every movement in detail and executing it with precision.
This was followed by a pitch behind a huge rock slice which reminded me of pitches in Yosemite, and then by a straight crack cutting steeply through the face. It started off hand-width, but then became increasingly narrow until I could barely force my fingertips in, never mind any protection. However, I managed to get past this point and I was really feeling the altitude. We were climbing considerably higher than 4,000 meters here. This was followed by a few pitches in the shade and we suddenly found the rock covered with ice on which our climbing shoes were simply slipping. Nevertheless, Max managed to carefully work his way up, centimeter by centimeter. Icicles were flying past my ears at the belay station until he secured the next belay point far above in dry terrain. We succeeded in completing a first ascent of six pitches before rappelling back down. It had been an extremely long day and we were feeling exhausted. So we climbed back down to the base camp to gather our strength and wait for another window of stable weather.
As soon as it arrived, we returned to the six pitches that we had first-ascended. This time we were carrying a heavy load. When I was leading, my thick boots were hanging on my harness together with all my gear and I could feel the pressure of this weight dragging my harness down. As second climbers, we carried heavy backpacks filled with food, a stove and sleeping gear. The face was steep and as we climbed higher we began to worry that we wouldn’t find a place to sleep for the night. We then suddenly came to a snowy terrace where we were able to put up our tent. We were surprised and there was a general feeling of relief and elation.
The next morning, after an amazing sunrise, the weather took a sudden turn for the worse and we found ourselves surrounded by clouds that also brought cold conditions. After just one pitch, we came up against an obstacle: a slab with no options for protection barred our way. We tried on the right, on the left, a little more to the right, but there was no way past. I began to doubt whether we would actually reach the summit. We had been so optimistic after our day of climbing yesterday but now we were losing a great deal of valuable time in just the second pitch. Tola placed a first bolt for protection using a hand drill, which took up both time and energy. Max then removed it afterwards and made his way up the exposed slab. We held our breath as he climbed higher and higher, tried to place a wedge, climbed back down and finally placed a second bolt for protection high up on the slab. After a few more meters, he made it safely onto the ledge. We then faced some slightly overhanging crack climbing. Although very arduous, it was a real pleasure, particularly as we were traveling lighter today without the bivouac gear.
The terrain then took on an incline and we made faster progress. We worked our way up pitch by pitch and, many meters later, when Tola finally spotted the summit, there was great joy. After one last pitch, we were standing on the snowy summit at around 5,300 meters, the first people ever to do so. There was something almost mythical about the way the clouds were wafting around us, but unfortunately they were spoiling our view. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our summit chocolate, swapped our climbing shoes for thick mountaineering boots (warm feet at last!), and began to rappel down. This took a lot of time and maximum concentration as we needed to set up all our rappelling points. At times it was no easy task to find a place for slings or wedges. We had to show a great deal of creativity. The whole thing was made more difficult by the snow that was starting to fall and the rumbles of thunder that we could hear through the dense whiteness, but not locate.
At the very first rappel point, the ends of my rope became tangled below me, way over in the wrong direction, and it took quite a few rope maneuvers to free them. Luckily, this happened only once. In the absence of any other alternative, at one point we had to unpack our hand drills, which once again took a lot of energy. In fading light, we then returned exhausted to our tent.
We set about melting some snow to at least give our dehydrated bodies some relief. We then squeezed into our sleeping bags, three people in each one. We all had to lie on the same side, and if anyone wanted to turn over, it had to be done on command, everyone at once. Nevertheless, we managed to sleep.
The next morning, we woke up to perfect weather, rappelled to the glacier and climbed down to our base camp. It was only once we had actually arrived safe and sound that our first ascent became a reality that called for a celebration. We also invited the Italians who had set up their base camp a little further down in the valley and completed their first ascent a few days later, to celebrate our two successes.
We decided to dedicate our first ascent to our good friend Iñaki Coussirat, and called the mountain Monte Iñaki. Our “Namaste Dost” tour has 17 pitches and climbing of up to 7a in superb granite.
We then went on to complete first ascents of two shorter tours. Every five pitches, we climbed onto a little summit. Once again on good rock and it was so warm that we could even climb in T-shirts, at almost 5,000 meters!
Summer was on the way, it was getting warmer by the day, the trees in the valley were becoming greener and the snow was fading and softening. On our last night, it even began to rain at our ABC. It was so heavy that the dampness penetrated the walls of our tent. My down jacket and down sleeping bag were saturated and I began to count the hours until dawn. The rain was also accompanied by a terrifying storm that appeared to be directly above us all the time: flashes of lightning lit everything up and thunder rumbled above us. The last night had turned into a nightmare and I couldn’t wait for the morning sunshine. To our great disappointment, it was still gray in the morning and we had to pack up our wet things in the cold. It was then time to carry all our gear back down and so, bearing extremely heavy loads, we embarked on our last descent.
During our last few remaining days at the base camp, I set out with our Liaison Officer in the middle of the night to Bugshan Peak, an easy 5,000 meter mountain directly above our base camp. There was, however, an altitude difference of over 2,000 meters, but I was feeling so fit that I barely noticed it.
Finally, after four weeks, we made our way back to the valley with our horses.
Despite the fact that we had climbed different lines than originally planned, it had been a very successful expedition, a good team, a superb base camp and a good atmosphere. It was undoubtedly one of my best expeditions.
After walking for two days, we quickly found ourselves back in everyday Indian life. We had two more weeks to get to know this amazing country a little better, travel to Ladakh and devote ourselves to restorative yoga and meditation. Another very important part of expeditions for me is learning about the local culture and landscape, also as a sign of respect.
After two eventful and enriching months, I left India with a heavy heart. Once again, I am sure that I will soon want to go back.
Many thanks to Mammut who made this expedition possible and to Julbo, Oskri, Katadyn, Leki, Petzl and Scarpa for their support.