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KAMET- The Hidden Mountain

by Col . N. Kumar


In 1983, time came for me to say farewell to the Army. I had been in uniform for almost 34 years. While I was preparing my retirement plans, which needed all my attention, especially when you retire at the age of 50, I received a message from the then Colonel of the Kumaon regiment Lt Gen. P N Kathpalia, PVSM, which expressed hope, that before I lay down  arms,  I should head a Kumaon Regiment Mountaineering expedition so that the regiment would have some experienced climbers to pursue this adventure activity; that bring to the fore qualities of  leadership and courage to face severe adversity through unforgiving mountain climbs. 

I am a Kumaoni, and proud to be one. Ask a soldier, almost any soldier, and you will find him utterly, even fiercely and aggressively loyal to his regiment. To a soldier, his regiment is his second home. It is what nurtures and shapes him, gives him a sense of identity with a group of fellow-soldiers, gives him proud traditions to sustain him, and a heroic and glorious past as legacy. I just could not say no. So the question was which mountain to select? It had to be high enough to be challenging, yet not too difficult as most of the Kumaonis would be first timers. I selected Kamet, the third highest mountain in India.

I had already successfully led expeditions to the highest two peaks in India, Kanchenjunga and Nanda Devi. So it would be a satisfying hat-trick, I thought. With enthusiasm I then read the earlier accounts of Kamet. And I began also to think about my regiment’s requirements. It was first climbed by Frank Smythe’s team in 1931, the highest mountain ever climbed till then. A continuous series of expeditions took place thereafter. With India’s independence, Indian mountaineers too found in Kamet a friendly and attractive mountain and were successful in climbing it in 1955, 1970, 1980 and 1982.  All these climbs were made from the classic route i.e., the Eastern Kamet glacier followed by Smythe.

Surely then there were other aspects to a mountain as high as Kamet. I looked for photographs, studied them, and gradually a vision began to form in my mind. I discovered that no one had attempted to climb the mountain from its western flank since the intrepid Captain Slingsby’s last unsuccessful effort in 1913. I could not believe it, for here lay the highest unclimbed route on any Indian mountain, and none had thought of it for over seventy years. I decided to take a look at this baffling mystery.

The primary goal was, of course, to initiate the regiment into serious mountaineering. Kamet at about 25,447 feet (7756 m) would certainly make for good blooding. A successful ascent would generate confidence and get Kumaoni climbing activities off to a good start, considering that substantial commitment of effort and money would be involved in the venture.  We thus determined to make a full-scale reconnaissance of the Western flank of Kamet, an approach not seriously tackled before.

I had no problems in organising the expedition as Brig. Satish Issar, Commandant Kumaon Regiment Centre took upon himself to look after the logistics, the main headache of any Himalayan climb.

On 30 May I drove from Joshimath to our Mana Camp at the road head, a little way above Badrinath. Before Badrinath, my eyes were inevitably drawn to the majestic Nilakantha, the mountain that was of such triumph and tragedy for my small team in 1961. From Mana Camp to Ghastoli is approximately 16 kms, which we covered the next day. The route lay over the frozen Saraswati River.  The 3300 ft climb took us 7 hours, a nice testing walk for starters.

From Base Camp at Ghastoli the boulder strewn terminal moraine of the Western Kamet Glacier is about a kilometer’s walk along the left bank of the Saraswati. The glacier itself is almost exactly at right angles to the Saraswati, a ninety degree turn to the right as one walks up from Ghastoli.

Out of our 50 porters 30 of them bolted after going on the snow covered route. Dhotials from Nepal are capable of carrying almost 60 kgs on the back over steep climbs, but usually the first encounter with snow and they are gone.

The path climbed in a steep zigzag and spread around a high shoulder. After a kilometre’s climb the gorge opens up and route then ambled over a grassy and pleasant hill side, and after another 3 hours walk we reached a base camp situated under the rock cliff.  It was the only tiny green patch at the height of 13,700 ft.  Next to it we found a fresh water spring.

The route from that Base Camp to Camp I (16,500 ft) was on lateral moraine and tough going for the green horns and veterans like me.

On 4th June, I walked over the snow track more easily than the day before. An early start certainly makes things easier and adds as an aide to one’s growing fitness. Mana peak was visible but we had to wait for the grand view of Kamet. After an hour’s walk we saw its formidable southwest face and the West Ridge. We could not yet see the complete ridgeline leading to the summit, but we saw enough to realise that it was very difficult.  Some of the routes appeared threatened by avalanches, some routes didn’t have enough camping space and others were sheer steep.

At Camp II we met Capt. Suraj Bhan Dalal, Deputy Leader overseeing the western route. He had served as instructor at the High Altitude Warfare School and was a member of the Sickle Moon expedition, the highest mountain in the Kistwar Himalayas. He had spent the last three days considering the various possible climbing routes, gauging the risk and danger, searching for possible camp sites, calculating the logistical built-up needed to propel a team on to the proud high point of Kamet, that rose 7,000 ft above Camp II. For detailed reconnaissance we walked to the rock face, the first obstacle before gaining the crest of the west ridge from the Southwest side. The rock step wore a sheen of verglas with very uncertain holds. Worse, the gully above it, which we had hoped would offer a line of crest, was much steeper, and was a natural funnel for falling stones. There was no available camping or even a resting place, and three thousand feet of climb in one stretch had to be managed. A possible, but very difficult and dangerous proposition.

We then turned our attention to the southeast ridge. To reach the high col we would first have to tred a way gingerly through a highly crevassed glacier - a long detour traversing the lower slopes of Mana peak well beneath the higher reaches, and then encounter a final steep ice wall to the col. This latter section would again be exposed. From the col, the southeast ridge rose steeply at an angle of over 45 degrees- a sharp challenge at that altitude. About a thousand feet below the summit it turned into an overhang of about 100 feet.  We could overcome this obstacle by fixing the rope, but at 24,000 ft it was a daunting proposition.

Having reconnoitred these obstacles we returned to Camp II. 

Next morning we decided to examine the approach from the northwest face. After 2 kms walk we turned right and entered a small closed valley about 2 kms long, which ended in a high ridge, that appeared to link Kamet on the right and Mt Mukut on the left. Going into the closed valley, Kamet lay to our right, its northwest face rearing upwards for over 6000 ft. On the left we could see the bulk of Mukut Parbat with a network of broken ribs in its upper bastions. The valley stretched as an almost flat snowfield till it began encountering huge ice blocks and avalanche debris that extended for about 200 yards from the base of Kamet. We looked up then, our necks craned as far back as possible, our eyes focused on the greatly foreshortened view of Kamet’s northwest face, searching for a gully or a rib, which might offer a lead up the lower slopes. There appeared no such obvious climbing routes.  The lower half of the face first rose almost vertically upward in avalanche ice cones and then turned into a dark rock wall, relieved here and there by whiteness, which on closure observation was found to be flakes of thin ice. At about a height of 23,000 ft the entire face was girdled with flaring hanging glaciers. Three of these stretched right across the huge expanse and it didn’t require much imagination to conclude that their blue undersides, seemingly unsupported, would intermittently sag and break off. There were three of these, each looking as nasty as the others. Above these hanging glaciers the going seemed easier, and one could reach the col on the west ridge at about 1500 below the summit. From there we did not see any major obstacle.

During his earlier recce, Suraj had zeroed in one of the possible routes between the last two overhanging glaciers which seemed safer unless an abnormally large portion broke from the left hand side of the central glacier occur. Its over-flowing debris could then threaten about 500 ft of the climber’s route.  Work early at dawn and climb at night with head lamps ?  We mulled over these possibilities as we continued to scan the line up the face. After much discussion between Suraj, self and Nb Sub Kura Ram, who was a member of my Kanchenjunga Expedition, we decided in favour of the Northwest face.  Actually, it was like choosing between the “devil and the deep blue sea”. Suraj seemed happy though as he thought it was the only feasible route. As the recce party was also carrying some loads for Camp II, we dumped it at 19,200 ft. It included an orange Meade tent named after the same person which carries the name of Meade’s col, gateway to the summit of Kamet.

The first route opening party on the Northwest side consisted of Maon, Rajendra and Balwan. It took them about 20 mins. to get to the base of the avalanche cone from Camp III.  After cutting steps for 700 feet, they returned to the camp at 3.30 pm.  Maon’s arms and shoulders ached due to endless swinging of his ice axe as he had done most of the step cutting. After a day’s rest they went up again, though Balwan had to return as he was not feeling well and his place was taken over by Lakhpa, a Sherpa from Darjeeling. They followed the earlier foot-steps and fixed some more ropes ahead of it, before returning to Camp III. 

On 9th June a rope consisting of Kura Ram, Dan Singh and Abhay decided to take on the north-western face. An hour and a half later they crossed the 20,000 ft mark and hit the high point reached by the earlier rope. Thereafter their progress slowed, and they were moving now one at a time, alternately over rock and ice. The face offered very few secure holds and artificial ones has to be created. That day Kura Ram’s team fixed another 600 ft of rope gaining another 300 ft on the mountain.

As the main objective of our expedition was to train Kumaonis in high altitude climbing, a majority of them were kept on the eastern axis, which was easier and a better route.  I decided to go on to the eastern side myself.

On the eastern side our Deputy Leader was Capt. D B Thapa. He was also the Deputy Leader of the expedition, and had already climbed Kamet with an IMA expedition in 1982. A very cool, competent and remarkably mature person, he followed the same route as Smythe i.e., the western glacier and then through a rock gully to Camp III below the Meade’s col.

Meanwhile the eastern party got involved in a serious evacuation of Lance Nayak Bharat Singh, who suffered from pulmonary odema at Camp II and was carried down to Base Camp.

A strong climber can climb to the summit of Kamet directly from the Meade’s col camp at the height of  23,500 ft. Capt Thapa suggested though that another camp be placed between Meade’s col and the summit. I agreed in the expectation that it will act also as a security camp in the event we were able to cross over from western side. Wishful thinking as it turned out.

The summit team of Capt. Thapa, R K and Balwan made an attempt on 24th June, but they fell short of the summit by 500 ft.

On the western side Capt Sambial’s party going from Camp II to Camp III had a harrowing experience when Pratap fell into a crevasse. Looking downwards he saw 100 ft walls of blue ice before him. He was himself hanging 10 ft below the lip of the crevasse where the rope held him and enabled him to come out of that frozen hell. 

On 10th June Kura Ram’s team set out early at 10 am and they reached the previous high point in two hours time. They got stuck in a chimney, which did not look very promising.  Dan Singh, who was watching Kura Ram’s anxious face, decided to tackle the left edge of the rock wall, which was icy. The ice was too thin to put in pitons, nor had any protuberances to hold on to, nothing. At one place Dan Singh climbed on Kura Ram’s shoulders to hammer in the pitons.  Having got over that hold-less pitch, there was no stopping him. He climbed for another one hour fixing more pitons. Down below at Camp II they watched the rock maneuvers of Dan Singh with fingers crossed. Later Maj. Ravinder Nath said “he went up as if the summit was insight, swift, surefooted and smooth, he was a man inspired”. He wanted to do a little more that day but his senior colleague Kura Ram thought that they had enough for the day and came down. Suraj Dalal reckoned that Dan Singh had definitely climbed over 2000 ft.

From 11th June, a spell of bad weather began, which carried on for a week. Capt. Sambial and Capt. Aggarwal attempted the route, but could not get to the point reached by Dan Singh.

On 19th June Suraj sent up Dan Singh and Lakhpa. It took them five hours to jumar up the avalanche cone, rock wall-one, then the 500 ft. of ice slopes and the large boulder at the foot of the second rock wall, the previous high point reached. Rock wall-two grows over 150 ft in vertical and over hang; nowhere did it soften to an angle less than 80 degrees. It was a heart breaking obstacle to encounter after a 5 hours ascent.  But the pair had made an early start and the weather held. They were able to fix a rope on rock wall-two in about 3 hours of exceptional climbing. They arrived back at Camp III at 5 pm in good spirit, despite not being able to establish a place for camp IV.

On the left of the rock wall-two, and separated by a 40 ft ice slope, was another rock face of about the same size and steepness as the former. The top of this rock wall was estimated at around 22,000 ft. Above this was a steep slope of approximately 300 ft, which would end at a point above the hanging glacier, through a tongue of hard snow. From the ice slope to the glacier would be a demanding 500 yards traverse, but it was safe from avalanches. Once they got to the glacier there was a nice camping place. If this camp could be stocked with supplies, the summit could be attained with another camp at the west col.

On June 21st Dan Singh and Lakhpa surmounted and fixed rope over half of rock wall-three.  But yet with no camp place yet available, it was felt that one might be able to bivouac; but these Alpine style tricks do not work in the Himalayas!

On 26th June a party of 5, Captain Dalal, Dan Singh, Lakhpa, Rajinder and Abhay Singh started for the face. The bold plan was to reach the Camp IV site, spend a night there and then go for the summit. A support party of two, Sher Singh and Bharat Singh, were to bring with them the tent and other supplies. When they were at a ledge just below the rockwall- three it started snowing. As the tent had not been fetched they decided to bivouac at the base of the rock, belayed by ropes and pitons. There were only three sleeping bags between five of them which they were obliged to share. The night was a nightmare. The wind swept snow was playing havoc with the climbers. Two of them complained of numb toes and the thought of frost bite was frightening! The morning dawned bleakly, weather remained bad, and there was no hope.  Staying there was useless. Dalal was worried about Rajinder Singh’s and Abhay’s numb feet and took a wise decision to turn back. His own right hand had become numb and had to do a lot of massaging to bring it back to life.  Between rockwalls–three and two, a small powder avalanche buried Rajinder and with the snow Lakhpa and Dalal came down fast.  The ropes could have broken, the pitons could have come out and the sling could have deceived them. Many fatal things could have happened, but they were spared. Again at rock wall-one, they were subjected to a powder snow avalanche. Luckily Rajinder and Dalal were at the bottom of the wall when the avalanche came. Dan Singh was thrown from the top to bottom of this rock wall-one. That which had taken him hours to negotiate, brought him down in seconds.

The avalanche passed, visibility improved and one by one they all came out of snow. Luckily they all escaped injury. At 7:30 in the evening they reached Camp III. The occupants of Camp III, who were worried about the team that had spent a night out at such altitude in such bad weather. They were overjoyed to see them and could not control their tears of joy. Capt Dalal and his men had done an excellent job; they had established a new trend for Indian climbing. Few Indian climbers or expeditions have attempted big mountain faces.

Later in 1985, following the southwest route, which we had rejected, an Indo French Army team reached the summit from the west ridge.
 
On 30th June Capt Thapa with a seven member team, including Lt. Bakshi and Lt. R K Singh left Camp II and reached Camp IV. They were surprised to find that all the gear including the tents were buried under snow and worse yet the gas cartridge had leaked. Their stove was also not to be found. As they had a tough time breaking the track once again after the snowfall, they managed to crawl into their snow covered tents and went straight to sleep. In the morning they could not see the tent at Camp VI and were felt with no option, but to start for the summit from Camp V. They left at midnight taking turns in breaking the track, most of it in knee deep of snow. They fixed rope of about 200 ft on a vertical slope that was full of ice. They reached the summit at 4 pm., and returned to Camp V after 15 hours of grueling effort. We had been lucky on the eastern side as we just made the summit before monsoon started.

The task was accomplished. We failed the test of the difficult North West face, succeeded by the traditional one, but had in the process produced some fine seasoned climbers. Unfortunately one of them, Lt. Ramnik Singh Bakshi who had climbed both Kamet and Abi Gamin with our expedition, went with an ill fated Indian Army expedition in 1985, and never returned.

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