I’ve been a little bit quiet on the blogging front on from the winter, mainly due to being very busy with various things and life getting in the way… So what have I been up to? After a successful winter in Scotland and passing my Winter Guide exam I progressed to the Alps and have spent a large part of the summer working over there as an Aspirant.
The summer was amazing and very informative for me as an Aspirant Guide. I can now see why the Aspirancy period is so integral to the Guide’s learning process. Along with the usual Matterhorn’s and Mont Blanc’s I was also able to explore some more hidden corners of the Alps and jump on routes that were not only new to me but also needed to be approached in a very different way, working as a Guide with clients. There was also the small matter of a trip to Alaska in the Spring which I promise will be reported soon! For now tho this post is about a trip I have just returned from; an expedition to the Miyar Valley in the Indian Himalaya.
For well over a decade now I have been reading books by the likes of Fowler, Bonatti, Messner and House about their incredible experiences in the Himalayas. I have bookshelves full of them. When I was thirteen and beginning to climb regularly I went to a slideshow by Simon Yates (of Touching the Void fame) at Wilf’s Cafe in Staveley. I say slideshow and not lecture because with an audience of no more than twenty and set in a very intimate setting one winters eve, I was witness to an incredible couple of hours of talk and slides that undoubtedly stirred something deep inside me. That night at the end of the evening I bought a signed poster off Simon titled ‘The Latoks and Ogres from the East’ that I can still remember clear as day. I have known for as long as I have been climbing that one day I too would gravitate towards these climbs and seek my own experience when the time is right.
Being part of the British Mountain Guides network has a lot of advantages, not least being able to easily communicate with and be ‘kept in the loop’ about up and coming trips and what members are up to. It was one wet February afternoon when a post came through our Yammer network (think Facebook for Guides) that stood out from the rest. Martin Moran (Himalayan legend and fellow BMG member) was planning a trip to a remote corner of the Indian Himalaya and was after reliable folk to come along. We asked him some obvious questions (the sort Himalayan virgins would ask) about routes in the area and likely conditions. We received the reply below:
Dear Dave and John,
I have attached pics of the N Face of Pk 6294m. The face height is 1200m. The mountain is so far unclimbed as far as I know. It’s the pivotal peak of the area geographically. The easy route will be from the top of the Miyar Glacier up the south-east face – looks about AD. I organised but didn’t participate in a trip to try and climb the easy route in 2015 but it was somewhat disastrous. The team never got to the bottom of it. They got bogged down and demoralised by several days of bad weather lower down the Miyar Glacier. You could reach an advance camp-site at 5000m in a day’s walk up dry glacier from the Jangpar side glacier. To get to this N Face from here would be a real mission – totally committing. You’d have to go over Kang La (5400m) , down to 4500m at Khanjur in the Temasa valley, then up the Tidu Glacier to the base of the face at around 5000m – all technically easy but long and rough. I did all this on a guided trip in 2011 which is described in my Higher Ground book. If anything went wrong on the face and you couldn’t get back over Kang La you’d be stuck on the wrong side of the Himalaya. You’d have to go out to Padum in Zanskar (about 20km to a road). Then it is a major road journey via Kargil to Leh (300km, 2 days). From Leh you could fly back to Delhi. This has all the ingredients of a complete adventure. In 2011 we saw no-one for 10 days – no shepherds or trekkers in these valleys at all.
Martin’s original pic. Raja Peak in the background
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, working a time frame and calculating some finances, myself and regular longtime climbing partner and fellow Aspirant BMG John Crook thought it too good an opportunity to pass up. If you are a dedicated alpinist and you receive an email like this off someone like Martin, the answer is YES. He had us hook, line and sinker. The Himalayas were on!
Fast-forward to the end of the following summer and three months working in the Alps has left me hill fit but chomping at the bit for some personal climbing. The now usual a lot to do / not enough time to do it in ensued, but soon enough I’d driven back to the UK, packed the necessaries, fed the cat and was on my way to India.
Now having read so much about a place before you can’t help but have certain preconceived ideas. I have heard on more than one occasion India to be described as ‘THE most vibrant mix of sights, sounds and smells on the planet; a sensory overload’ and on first inspection Delhi did not disappoint. The usual Western-priced rip off taxi fare saw us deposited at Delhi YMCA, our accommodation for the night after a round-the-houses approach with what was essentially a cab driver who had no idea where he was going. All good fun to start the trip. Here we would meet Martin and Ian the following day. Guess it could have been worse, at least we got ripped of with a smile…
Sorting gear for the off at Delhi YMCA
The following day was spent largely sorting out kit, packing and re-packing and buying any last minute essential items. All this taking place in-between bouts of sweating profusely in the intense, afternoon Delhi heat, with a trip to the local market sealing the deal as experience of the day. I was grateful I had shopped for the obligatory essentials before I left the UK, however enjoyed accompanying John whilst he played the customary game of haggling for his life over a few Rupees for items he didn’t really want anyhow.
‘Hello my friend. You want t-shirts, you want watches?’
‘No, not really’
And so it continued.
Now in nearly every book I have read about trips to climb in the Indian Himalaya the IMF is mentioned. The Indian Mountaineering Federation is the point of reference for teams coming to spend time in the high mountains of India and place for teams to meet their assigned Liaison Officer along with getting the legally required pre-ordained permit to climb. Again the place had taken on an almost mythical status (funny how you build things up in your head) so it was great to finally go there and see for myself. The building was nothing like I imagined, grander and with a brilliant climbing wall in the well-kept grounds. It turned out Martin is somewhat of a celebrity around those parts and had agreed to do a lecture for them that evening. We met Ghadjhi (our Liaison Officer), sorted the necessary paperwork and then enjoyed a fine evening at Martin’s talk with great hospitality shown to us from officials at the IMF.
Alongside Martin and Ian were another couple on the expedition; Charlie and Annette who had flown in from Sweden that day. All three teams had different hopes and objectives for the trip, however with a seemingly shared goal of first ascents (albeit on very different peaks) and a very exploratory sense about us we set off travelling overland to Manali; gateway to the Himalayas.
A long journey by jeep led us up, out of the manic chaos that was Delhi and North away from the accompanying mosquitos to cooler climbs. It was good to see Delhi but after even just a couple of days I had no desire to remain there and was keen to get going. Now India has close to 150,000 deaths on its roads each year and quite frankly from what I saw I’m surprised it’s not more. Mental does not even come close. Why bother staying on the correct side of the road when there’s space in the other lane or waiting to overtake at a suitable place when you could just do it now? A very interesting and different way to think about driving indeed and thankfully not one I will be importing to Cumbria’s roads.
Our transport for the next couple of days (YMCA Doorman not included)
Manali is a town of two halves. Manali itself; a busy, bustling typical Indian community set high in the hills and Old Manali; somewhat quieter, more expensive and obviously better set to cater for the whim’s of Westerners like ourselves. Old Manali was thankfully our base for the night. it was a good chance for final preparations before heading over the Rohtung Pass the following day and we took full advantage of what was very likely to be our last taste of this level of comfort for a while.
Early the next day and we were off over the near 4000m Rohtung Pass heading ever closer to the Miyar Valley. Having never been to India before the experience was all new, different and very enjoyable. Sweet tea is something it appears you have to like when travelling around India. Every stop is a tea stop and even if you order coffee and they agree to it in principle (in itself unlikely) you’ll probably get tea anyhow. Save yourself the time and just order tea to begin with would be my advice. That way at least everyone will know where they stand.
Top of the Rohtung Pass
Soon enough we made it to our accommodation for the night; a homestay in a very small village at the road head of the Miyar Valley. This gave us an invaluable opportunity to sample real, rural Indian life first-hand and see just how warm and friendly the local people were. Put simply their life is basic but seemingly very happy. I felt they had a light-hearted contentedness with what little they had with a focus on the true necessities in life. Here we were well catered for and after a few too many fresh Chapattis and a more than comfortable nights sleep we started our walk the next morning along the flat-bottomed valley. We had two base camps planned (one for Charlie and Annette and one for me, John, Martin and Ian) along with Gajendra, Heera (our Cook) and Chetan (our High Altitude Porter) who were to accompany us to our base camp. We also had six horses to get all our kit up there, managed by two Horse Men.
Miyar Valley at first light
The next two days were spent like this, nudging ever closer to our own camps but very much enjoying the walk. I felt like a child in a sweet shop with so many unclimbed peaks towering overhead. How lucky we were to be here.
River crossings are something you just have to get used to on these trips. The more remote an area the less likely it is to have bridges where and when needed and after all, that’s what we came for. Glacial flows are in fact even colder than they sound and careful route choice along with a quick immersion and exit seemed to be paramount for limiting the pain.
Martin on the last of the bridges
There comes a time in a man’s life when you realise you just need to man up. That point for me was wondering how I was going to get across this river when this lad turns up barefoot and carries his horse across. It was only a small horse but still…
On arrival at our base camp (BC) we wasted no time in packing up and getting ready to move further up the glacier. Our ‘A’ plan was adventurous, extremely long and full of uncertainties. To help we had paid a little extra to get assistance from a high altitude porter (Chetan) to make our plan look a little more likely and to be able to maximise our time in the hills. As it turned out Chetan was a total legend and brought so much more than badly needed resupplying and help load carrying.
Leaving BC to establish advance base camp (ABC) our loads were massive, 25-30kg each. We had been told to skirt the left bank of the glacier but after several hours it became apparent this was in fact not the best way and proved to be even harder work than anticipated. We did a solid 7 hours like this with peaks and troughs of incredibly loose moraine over fifty metres high before hitting dry glacier where we camped for the night. Tough day in the saddle.
John sorting supplies at BC
Throughout this day Chetan followed casually and I would often ask him how he was getting on.
‘How you doing Chetan?’
‘Good’ came the reply. ‘I just follow you’
Delivered light-heartedly yet meaningfully every time with a huge smile and despite the fact it had now started to snow. Good man!
It feels my recent ongoing training as a Guide has made me much more aware of how others are doing around me in the hills. I recognise instantly if it is cold and someone isn’t wearing gloves, they have not eaten, or are slowing down. I notice the same awareness in John too.
Days like this are what the iPod shuffle mode was made for. Thanks to Oasis, Leftfield, The Prodigy, Hot Chip and many more for helping me through the highs and lows. I am forever in your debt.
ABC established and after a night there Chetan left us and made his way back down to BC with an agreement to come and restock food after a week. It felt ever so slightly more isolated when Chetan left, just the two of us remaining. Although slow we were making progress. It felt great to finally get to ABC (felt like a mission in itself) as from here we would be able to travel a lot lighter and soon the climbing would begin in earnest.
Bad weather hampered us the next day (one of only two days on the whole trip) so a tactical rest day was called for and when we awoke to blue skies the following morning we began our acclimatisation on a nearby 6036m peak. The peak had been climbed once before in 2007 (only to find this out upon our return, thinking we were doing another first ascent) but we spent two days on its South-East ridge along with a stunning bivi at 5600m. Although not particularly technical, the ridge made a brilliant acclimatisation peak and gave us a superb vantage point to inspect our likely descent of pk. 6294. The day was incredible with clear blue skies, warm temps and light winds. If this was what climbing Himalayan summits is all about, then I want more! We descended back to ABC to relax for the rest of the day and with the weather still looking good packed leisurely with a plan to leave the next day for the main event.
Our ‘A’ plan had been suggested to us by Martin whilst we were thinking of possible objectives for the trip. The best idea when heading on these expeditions is to come with a LOT of plans and objectives and bring everything you think may be needed for 99% of eventualities. This way when expedition life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade and change and adapt and still get something done. It is a very long way to head and get nothing done. ‘A’ plan was big. Part of the enrapture of alpine expedition climbing for me (and alpine climbing in general) is the unquantifiable nature of and often huge level of uncertainty associated with it. I have a tendency to search for certainties in life (and there aren’t many) so this is a pill I have learnt to swallow over time in both life and the mountains. We had some numbers (we even had a map to see us to our peak and back, even if it did turn out to be wrong) but actually how far was it and how long would it take? Did we have enough food? These constant ponderings along with the accompanying natural anxiety over the unknown technical difficulties, weather (out of our control beyond our own assessments) and other logistical and technical wonderings are an integral part of the experience. Years ago (I’m talking ten or so) I could so easily get psyched out by such a big route. ‘Over 1000m of climbing?‘ or ‘How hard?‘ Now tho I have learnt to handle these uncertainties. I have climbed routes of close to two-thousand meters in length and jumped on (and capably retreated in horrendous weather from) even bigger. I have climbed Scottish grade VIII 8, and although not the strongest rock climber in the scheme of things I can keep going for a really, really long time. Time served in first rock climbing about the Lakes then Scottish Winter, followed by an alpine apprenticeship has given me these tools. And I can suffer. This means I no longer need to focus as much on natural uncertainties and I believe I will be fine whatever happens.
Before you have actually done something on a trip it is all just hot air and to be honest not even worth mentioning. I could be off to solo hard new routes on the South Face of Annapurna (stand aside Ueli), but until I’d done it and was safely back at BC it’s all just hot air and dreams in the making. I often think as expeditions as being 9/10 experience and (hopefully) 1/10 climbing. How will it play this time? After what can only be described as an absolute suffer-fest on my last trip to Alaska we were due some good fortune.
The next afternoon we were off. First stop was back up the glacier heading to the Kang La pass, crossing point to the north side of the range. This was by now a slow, familiar walk and although still heavy, our bags felt light after the load carrying to ABC. I wondered weeks before we set off on this trip what it would feel like if we got to the pass. It was a pivotal point of commitment for our plan, the point where any onward movement northwards would be inextricably linked with deepening commitment to our goal and the way back becoming more and more involving. If we commit and can’t make it over our objective for any reason what would we do? Climb a different route back over somehow? Walk back around? Maybe neither? We hit the col and had decided to camp on top to further aid acclimatisation. We were treated to an incredible night under one of the best skies I have ever seen. We lay in our our tiny two-man bivi tent with the door open and watched the sky chatting like we were down the pub. You really get to know someone when partnered on a trip like this. I saw a good ten shooting-stars then dozed off. The next day we felt great despite a cold night and we continued down steep, firm slopes heading to the Jangpar glacier. On from here each step of the journey from the col began to feel more and more liberating and like we were doing what we had come here to do.
From dry glacier to wet-snow line then back to dry glacier. We were travelling through the hills. Down we went. All the time the ground was broken and extremely rough. The Himalayan chain is still rising and so that makes the boulders and more recent rockfalls much more unsettled. The ground is not like adventuring around the Lakes. Big, loose, boulders, huge loads and long journeys make for problematic journeys for the unprepared and unaware. I fell badly four or five times over the trip and it felt like it could have had consequence. A broken leg out here would be problematic to say the least. By the end of the trip tho despite these setbacks I felt a much greater understanding of the moraine. It’s inability to move under it’s own stream; being pulled and pushed in all sorts of directions, it’s precarious positioning. What happens when your iPod runs out on day six whilst on a load carry through this ground? You think about shit like this.
More river crossings on the Jangpar Glacier
Raja Peak on the left
Seracs beginning to wake up
We rounded the corner of the Temasa Valley and caught a first glance of or peak. Martin wasn’t lying. It was massive, sheer and by far the biggest around. What a hill! I couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated initially but with the appearance of more and more useable features on the face and it looking like it could actually be in quite good condition I relaxed into it. By end of play that afternoon we had made it to a campsite across the valley from our peak, a perfect vantage point of the subject of so much thought these last few months. Again on a dry glacier, it felt a minor luxury to have streams running nearby and not have to melt snow. The whole place (at this altitude) felt so much more hospitable than Alaska. Butterfly’s and Bee’s were all around along with the usual alpine Chuff’s and it really set the scene. Our plan was to spend twenty-four hours here to rest, observe the face and generally just prepare ourselves for what was to come. We had brought a pair of binoculars to see if we can work out a route on the face. Were those corners ice or snow? We would soon find out.
Now John likes his food and apart from carrying it so far, it was nice to have plentiful supplies the day before a big route. A rare treat indeed. Fed, hydrated and relaxed was how we left the penultimate bivi site before getting on the wall. We found a way through a maze of crevasses over to our final bivi site beneath and a little way from the prospective beginning of our route.
Now in the very early morning with all the aforementioned anxieties about such an endeavour, the last thing you want to be worrying about is finding your way to the correct start of your route. Experience has told me this. It is worth (in my opinion) putting a track in the day before so you don’t end up wasting precious minutes at a very bad time of the morning and preventing you from getting a good start on your route. If there is no moon to light the way even with a very good head-torch it can be confusing to say the least. This done along with other final preparations like water bottles filled and into sleeping bags (to prevent them from freezing) and another check of the proposed route and it was time to bed down.
The alarm always goes off too early, or too late. It is never on time. So much of alpine climbing is about timing and discipline. The alarm goes off, you get up. It snows you put your hood up. It blows like hell and you spend the extra time guying the tent out. If you don’t none of these things will likely be catastrophic, however each will lead to a gradual decline in performance and if it goes on long enough you will pay. On this occasion 2:30 was our nemesis. With a track already in and water ready for the morning brew the routine for departure is simple and takes 45 minutes.
I lead off and John follows when the rope goes tight. I decide the Bergschrund looks different in the opaque morning light and head further left than planned. The ‘Schrund apron is slab, slab over sugar snow. The slab is deep and a pain for travel but not a threat at this stage. Upwards, rightwards, up some more. It is on terrain like this when I wish I was following. I look at my watch. 4:26am. The avalanche prone gully is quiet. This is good. I gamble on the snow above being firmer and more useable when I will need it most. I place a screw and assess it. It is good. I move on up and onto the face proper. John follows.
We move together for several hundred feet. This is a very efficient way to move on moderate terrain in the hills and can really eat up the ground. The climbing is easy and there is protection. I have very little interest in moving roped together with anybody with no protection on any type of ground. The threat from anything falling and knocking either climber off is real and the consequences up here dire. We climb up a little more and John takes the lead. We use one rope for now and I carry a second in my pack. John climbs to where the climbing looks to get harder and makes a belay. I climb to join him. John is keen to continue and we begin to get out the second rope. In the change from one rope to two and early morning confusion I drop my belay device. Balls. ‘Here’s to practicing my Italian-hitch for the next thousand meters‘ I think. We realise neither of us saw it drop too far and decide to investigate. It has stopped on the firm sixty-degree snow just fifty meters below. I could drop it again a hundred times and I don’t believe it would stop there once. With the face still yet to claim it’s first swag and back in the game belay wise, John moves off up. I am not a religious man tho with enough of these well timed fortunate happenings I wonder if one day I could be. Deep down I doubt it.
The next pitch is much harder and John climbs up the main gully line before the ice gets too thin, then out right for the sanctuary of rock and the protection it offers. I am left at a hanging belay. The belay is good but in the post dawn space and getting hammered by spindrift (to become a regular feature of the face from then on) for the next two hours I get cold and struggle to follow the pitch. People love the pictures and accompanying tales but if they could see me now they would think we are mental. Is this how I choose to spend my ‘holidays’? It would appear so. We could have gone to Majorca sport climbing in the sun or maybe Kalymnos. I’ve heard Crete is lovely this time of year too but no, we came here. I am however happy to be here despite the immediate situation. John puts in a solid, inventive lead and climbs what turns out to be the route’s crux. I join him for my time on the sharp end and continue on slightly easier ground. The spindrift is really bad (Point Five Gully on a bad day type bad) and I place more gear than usual to compensate. I chase the sun which is now hitting the face above us just a little too slowly whilst moving steadily upwards all the time.
John on the crux pitch
We emerge on the mid-way snow ramp above the lower third of the technical difficulties. It felt great to have been able to climb our ideal line to this point, the stand-out route so far. From here we traverse right for circa 150m to a point where we can gain access to the upper face. The traverse tho easy features crossing of some vast, open slopes and with protection limited in the compact granite care is still needed to continue moving together. It is very often on such ‘easy’ ground like this where one’s guard is dropped and accidents can happen. The attention required when climbing like this is significant and a constant and I see this as my own form of meditation. Meditation with consequence.
The vast mid-way slopes
The high Himalayan sun beats down relentlessly and is intense beyond belief. In just a few minutes temperatures can soar from minus figures to stifling, along with it all the changes solar radiation brings to the alpine party. Increased spindrift and snow movement, along with wet insulation and the ever-constant never quite warm enough toes. This is an environment where a lack of discipline will be punished. Can’t be bothered to put your hood up? You’ll pay for that eventually. And still the spindrift pours.
The incessant spindrift is now both a continuous and well accepted feature of our day. We look to climb where the ice is best, but this invariably leads us to climb up the same runnels down which the spindrift chooses to descend and we fight for prominence. Despite the good weather I am glad to be climbing in full hard-shells. If properly managed it is so much easier to stay dry in the spindrift and also means I will not need to carry them on my back or stop to put on these layers. With these already on this is one less thing I need to think about.
We look to climb as direct as possibly linking snowy corners and the now drooling tongues of ice. John is going steadily and I follow as best as I can, now back in to pitching mode. Goulotte after goulette of beautiful ice now lead us in a slow, arching line up left. The time is 4pm and it will be dark in a couple of hours. We both recognise the need to find somewhere to spend the night and the suitability of the ledge John has belayed on. We decide to push on to capitalise on the daylight with John remaining in the lead. Two hours later and with no good bivi ledge in sight we realise maybe it would heave been better to stay put at the last ledge. The joys of hindsight. John fixes the rope at his high point and descends forty meters back to the small ledge I am on. I have been preparing it now for fifteen minutes and it’s looking good. We won’t get the tent up but we have space for both of us to sit up comfortably, space for kit and good anchors. The Himalayan sun drops below the horizon and the temperature plummets. We have climbed for 16 hours straight today and melt snow to produce the much needed water to begin our recovery. Everything is going very smoothly and the mood is good. We have only 1.5 days of food left tho along with 2 days of gas so need to summit tomorrow. With this in mind we drift off.
The big chill sets back in again
Watching the sun go down on my first ascent of an unclimbed peak at around 6200m is something that I will never forget
Traverse of the Gods
After a fitful nights sleep we awake to another perfect morning. The process of getting going again after a night sitting on a small ledge on a high peak is harder and more time-consuming than you might think. A dropped stove or boot shell here would really complicate things. We are both very aware of this and take the necessary time to avoid these problems. The sun hits us and helps with this. We have decided we are going to have another look at finding a direct way through the top half of the face and for this will have to abseil down and across for a rope length first. Are we mad to be spending time descending trying to find a better, harder line? I don’t think so. I ascend to the top of the fixed rope and replace the anchor with something we can leave. I then re-fix the ropes and descend down and across to under the main steepening head-wall. I build a belay and John joins me. He has the rack and so sets off. We swing leads taking it in turn climbing pitches all around Scottish 4/5 heading for an obvious, large rectangular wall diagonally to our right. We had spied this as a key linking feature when checking out the wall from below and hoped it would grant us access to the final third of the wall. I belay here and stare across at what awaits. The climbing looks quite a lot harder, maybe Scottish VII or VIII. John joins me and it is apparent straight away we are thinking the same. It would be good to have a go, however it looks technical and time consuming and protection looks very limited. With only a day and a half’s food still left and very aware of our isolated position we reluctantly decide to leave the direct and continue heading right to find a way through.
Keeping to ‘pitched’ climbing John leads off. The next pitch is long and traverses around to the right out of sight. This pitch is reminiscent of the ‘Traverse of the Gods’ on the Eiger 1938 route, being easy but in an amazingly exposed position and again with protection only good where most needed. After this pitch the angle and exposure relent and we begin moving together again.
It is very hard when you are the first people to try and climb something and have nothing to follow to know where to go and what to head for. Instinct built up over twenty years of route finding on routes helps but invariably is not always the answer. We are very keen to climb as direct a line as possible but need to be be wary of time constraints, limits on our supplies and the very real danger of having an accident on the face. This could turn what is so far a relatively straight-forward climb into something much more involving and needs to be avoided at all costs.
Upwards again we go. We have an option to head right to escape the wall up a huge gully and associated ramp line. The gully has a vertical bounding right wall and the ice looks in good condition. After this we think we would be out on to the North-West shoulder and could continue more easily up and over the mountain. As an option it is tempting but we continue up the middle of the face as much as we can still seeking our direct line. John finishes his ‘block’ and I take the lead leftwards across first across easy slopes then straight up into a steep runnel. Twelve hours into day two and progress is now beginning to slow. We haven’t drank enough water and my muscles are now beginning to cramp badly. I diligently spend the extra time protecting the pitch like a form of compensation for my acknowledged weariness and move on up using the bounding side walls to rest when I can. The climbing remains first-rate with protection ample for the weary. Up and left I head to belay below an overhanging step. I belay from a screw you could hang a house off and a small wire. John climbs to join me.
‘Fancy it? I say.
‘Can do’ comes the reply.
We switch bags to keep the lighter of the two with the leader and John heads off. The overhang is very short and ultimately easier than it looks however I was happy to relinquish the lead and give my cramp a chance to subside. I feel the first rays of the day soaking into me and warming me all over. Here at the belay and well protected from the spindrift under overhanging walls it is a nice feeling tho I know it will not last long. The rope pulls and yanks me out of my wandering thoughts, back to the wall. It goes tight and stays tight, my sign to climb. I have climbed with John extensively now over the last seven years and you typically become very tuned in to being able to tell what the other person is doing, when you are on belay and generally what is happening out of sight and earshot on the other end of the rope. This way shouts can be kept to a minimum.
I climb up to see John belayed next to the final steeping below the summit slopes. It looks like there is still a few hundred meters to go but this is likely the last of the steeper pitches. John think it looks easier to traverse low down to my left and I begin to head across. The rope work is a nightmare and the extra faff and complicated nature of what I am trying to do soon outweighs any benefit. After a lot of expended energy I finally emerge level with and on the other side of John. Now at over 6000m and having been constantly on the go for the last eight days this really was not the desired result. Lesson learnt: Keep it simple, stupid.
I belay John up. He joins me as one by one then last light of the day is extinguished on the distant peaks like candles being blown out on a domino stack. Back to moving together again John leads on up, steadily and placing ample protection to counter the now growing feelings of tiredness and altitude. The ridge crest looks to be only one hundred meters away but turns out to be more. I follow taking out the protection John has put in. We are moving steadily but surely. One screw followed by another. A cam. Two nuts, another screw this time tied-off, another nut. And so it continues. It is pitch-black by the time I hit the ridge. This is now a section of the route we have not seen before and to my dismay the ropes lead off in a huge arc continuing the ridge line. Where is the summit? I follow with heavy legs over another two false summits until I see the faint glow from John’s torch. It is stationary and I conclude he must be on the top. Ten steps at a time in-between rests I climb to join him. I look around in all directions just yards from John in an effort to clarify there is no more up. There isn’t. It is 8.06pm.
Raja Peak summit shot. Despite feeling pretty knackered it was very special to be the first people to stand there. Raja means King in Hindi and seemed suitable for the area’s most prominent peak
I have been fortunate enough to sample a lot of different types of summits over the years. Some are joyous, some are casual and some are truly celebrated. The ones that have made a real impact on me tho are those that have been the culmination of months of work and have remained in the balance, uncertain until the final point. They are not like in the movies, no ‘Vertical Limit’ style celebrations here. There is no greeting party and no salvation. Just continued slabby snow accompanied with a brisk North-westerly and a feeling of thank fuck. We have reached the top but this is only half the job and now we need to get down. More than half of accidents happen on the descent. It is a time when when you are most tired and it is easy for the unsuspecting to believe the hard work is done and drop their guard. If anything it can very often be the opposite.
Ten minutes on top is enough. We share a warm embrace, snap the obligatory summit shots and head off down. The snow conditions have improved and the going is now good. We un-rope and quickly loose three hundred meters in height descending the South Ridge to a col. Happy with our position, we decide to camp. It is now 9:30pm and we have been on the go for seventeen hours. We get the tent up and stove on in-between bouts of me trying to throw -up. There is however nothing to bring up and so I continue my sickly demise. Headache tablets and a cup of tea will have to do. The late night snack of champions in the alpine world. When I finally lay down it feels good and eventually the salvation of sleep takes me.
Our South side descent
Another cool but faultless morning dawns. I feel better, so does John. We are tired but on good form. We both feel for the first time on this route the effects of the last week of cold conditions on our hands and feet and notice the now familiar dulled sensation of frost nip in our digits. Even writing this in my living room sat here with the fire on they are still not right. Occupational hazard? Maybe so. We wait for the sun to warm us before getting out of the tent. In the mean time we each drink litres of tea. The tea bags have broken and grit sits in the bottom of the pan but it makes little difference now. We pack up and begin to make our way down steep slopes on the opposite side of the col heading for the South side of our mountain. It is early in the morning and there has been a good freeze which now renders the South facing slopes stable enough for our needs. It will not stay like this for long. We rope up and I lead the way around the cornice and off down the hill. I feel the effects of the previous weeks’ effort straightaway and realise it will not be a fast day. Steady will do. Glad to have continued stable weather and good visibility for this descent I thread my way in and out of crevasses and seracs heading towards ABC all the time. We are on a wet glacier with varied snow and are diligent to take the time to add extra length to the rope between us as needed to protect us from the slots. The next few hours see us continuing our weaving line in and out of the features, back now onto the previously inspected descent spied from our acclimatisation peak and accompanying recce. At noon we hit dry glacier.
Me and John had by now spent a considerable length of time together and had not been more than 60m away from each other for several weeks now. The more time goes on the more the trusty iPod is brought into use on the long walks in and out. Hours would pass without a word, only those spoken by the Beach Boys or Basement Jaxx. Over the next few hours we continue down to ABC stopping only briefly to pick up some kit left at a stash along the way. We arrive back around 4pm and are relieved to see Chetan has kept his word and brought food. Job done.
Transcendence topo with bivi spot in blue
We spend a day at ABC relaxing and recuperating. It feels good to do nothing and switch off. We decide to head down to BC for a proper rest and a chance to find out how Martin and Ian got on before they depart in a couple of days. Essentially our plan was to stash our kit lower down the Miyar Valley towards the Jangpar glacier ready to come back up to try something else after a few days of luxury.
It was great to get back down and see everyone and get some real food. We have been living on boil in the bag type meals and Smash / Cous cous for a couple of weeks now and it was beginning to wear thin. Turns out Martin and Ian had succeeded on their A plan, establishing a high-quality technical rock route up their proposed spur (link at the bottom to Martin’s blog). Charlie and Annette had also succeeded in climbing their route so it was good success all round. All three teams summited on the 1st October and all three peaks were first ascent’s. What more could you ask for? As luck would have it we were all together at our base camp for one night only so it was great to catch up and see how the last couple of weeks went. That and eat fantastic pizza from Heera the cook.
Two days later and it was time for Martin and Ian to depart. Me and John had arranged to stay on a few days and were still keen to head back up. We waved them off and began our slow ascent again back to where we had stashed our kit. The last couple of weeks had taken it’s toll and we were both feeling pretty tired by now. I also felt a slight change in group dynamics with all the rest of the expedition leaving and heading back home with only me and John heading back up to into the mountains to try something else. It felt like we had already done what we came to do and I would have been happy leaving it at that and chilling at BC if I’m honest. Still tho John was psyched and I was keen enough and so on we went. We got back up, collected our gear and began to head East over very challenging moraine once again until we found a suitable flat-topped boulder where we could spend the night. Water was not plentiful around here and so we collected what we could where we could and bedded down for the night.
Gajendra, Heera, myself, Martin, John and Ian
Our plan was an early start and quick, light-weight day hit on a line spied up the face. Up at 1:30am and off shortly after. It was all automatic by now. We had no option to put a track in the previous afternoon (it was on a dry glacier) and we spent quite some time locating the correct line of ascent in the darkness. Our line consisted of easy slopes to around half height which we soloed, followed by a traverse across East to hit some mixed ground and then finish up a gully line and summit slopes. The day was all technically pretty easy and the view from the top predictably amazing. There are some incredible mountains around here, what a place! After a traverse of the mountain to ensure we had ‘topped out’ (it wasn’t certain we had gained the highest point initially), we began our descent abseiling from the mid-way col. The ridge was sunny and warm and it felt pretty cold getting back onto the North side of the mountain for the descent. Eight abseils and a lot of down climbing saw us down and off the face via easy gullies. Another really good day out followed by tea and medals back at our bivi boulder!
Hitting the ridge crest on James Peak
Last Chance saloon topo. Descent in blue
All that was left then was for a casual descent back down to BC the next day. We now knew the way very well and despite the heavy loads knew it was our final carry and so it didn’t matter. I wandered out with the iPod now back on shuffle and The Verve’s ‘Lucky Man’ came on. What an apt and fitting song to be walking out to, on what had been such a successful expedition.
On arrival in the mountains of Northern India the colours had been fantastic as the area had clearly started to usher in the change of seasons. Warming yellows and auburn reds, darkening shades abounded which really set the tone for an atmospheric walk-in. Now on the walk out and fast forward three weeks the mood has changed considerable and much less leaves remain. Those still in tact darker still with the colder temps and dropping snow line. The local people are out working in their droves and where there was silence before busy, relentless, time-restricted work was happening everywhere. Hay stacked eight meters high and securely fastened down on roofs. Fields ploughed, final produce gathered and prepared as surely only remote Himalayan villages knew how. Winter was coming and the village elders knew it.
And then just like that it’s all over and I’m sat back in my living room. It is completely silent but for the usual pitter-patter of autumnal rain rebounding off the window. The lights are on because it never quite gets light this time of year. I miss the life and death decision making, the climbing that requires a continuous exhausting physicality, yet so often necessitates such a delicate touch. You will likely only get it wrong once up there. The slow burn of the experience has me, the likes of which I am yet to find away from the alpine arena.
Since I have been back I have had some time to reflect and things haven’t quite been the same. The world appears to have taken on a slightly different persona in my absence and things feel a bit different. All we did was go away on a climbing expedition and it (largely by chance) ended up going really well, but it really feels like a turning point in my climbing career. Did we really head to a remote part of the Himalaya and smash out two first ascents including one via a 1200m North wall over six days, spening two days on the wall and all largely unsupported over a trip of 60+km? It is beginning to sink in that is exactly what has happened and the door now feels open for the next step up.
I have had these feelings before after particularly intense or memorable experiences in the hills. Ten years ago I was out on a ‘working holiday’ (skiing lots, working a little) in New Zealand. One day I went for a solo hike up Mount Taranaki with my skis on my back without giving it much thought. In all honestly I was a little bit lost at the time and wandering around some beautiful lands thousands of miles away from home and everything I knew seemed like as good an idea as any. Why not? Why not indeed. As I climbed up the steepening slopes of the extinct volcano nearing the top I couldn’t help but begin to feel what I was doing was actually quite special. It was not hard or particularly technically challenging, however I was 10,000+km from home climbing and about to ski off the impressive summit completely alone. I had told no-one were I was off to for the day and felt very isolated. The mountain is on a small peninsula and I could see waves crashing onto the shore all around, with perfectly round distinctive bands of forested greenery on the lower slopes. It was like being in a drawing of a perfect land. From the summit if I faced North and looked to my left the next thing I would hit was Australia and to my right South American a very, very long way away. I had not been looking for what I found that day but I got it anyway and it stayed with me as a very vivid feeling for close to a year. On the the return car journey I bought a post card of the mountain to remain myself of that day. I still have it on my notice board at home, badly faded but a strong reminder every time I look at it. One day I will go back and do it again. Maybe I’ll go with someone else this time? Eventually however the feeling diminishes and I seek it again. I have a very addictive personality and these experiences which I find so incredibly drawn to will I’m sure continue to attract me in some form or other until I die.
Make no mistake it has been hard work. This moment has been 20+ years in the making. That’s up and down, successes and failures, life doing it’s level best to get in the way. Done with expeditions? I haven’t even started yet. I am aware however that in making this statement I am confining myself to at least several months in camps, grim times in tents, some brutal hill time and suffering above and beyond what has come before.
So what next? A well earned break is what. A break from the (my) norm, training, with time to do some Rope Access work and restock the funds needed for my winter and the next part of my Guide exams. Apart from that I’ll likely be down my local if you need me….
‘You stay classy Miyar Valley’
See you out there next time!
A HUGE thanks needs to go to Rab for continued clothing and equipment support along with The Mount Everest Foundation for their generous financial support on our trips. Also to Alistair Yarwood for home-based support, a huge help at times. A special thanks needs to be given to Martin Moran too. Without him we would not have been able to go on this trip and would in fact still not even be aware of Raja Peak or they area at all so a massive thanks to him for all his help. You can find out more about Martin, his guiding work and whatever else he’s up to here.