Sunday, July 12, 2020

Donali dreams

Exploring unclimbed terrain in seldom visited valleys 

September 2018

Nestling on the north-east bank of Chenab between Kashmir to the north and Chamba-Lahaul to the south, lies the mountaineer’s playground Kishtwar.  As Harish Kapadia wrote famously in his book EXPLORING THE HIDDEN HIMALAYA “Kishtwar is the small parties hunting ground, there are innumerable valleys which are yet to be visited and the sheer variety of rock and ice formation is enough to satiate most ardent alpinst even if he/she ignored the prominent summits, all one has to is to change in to a higher gear of technique and in to lower gear of ego and mania for height records.


This is sounded perfect for our vision of mountaineering, the region has been reopened by the Indian mountaineering foundation since 2010 and this resulted in a series of cutting edge first ascents in impeccable style by worlds leading alpinsts all over the region. Elegant lines were climbed on Cerro Kishtwar, Hagshu, Arjuna, Brambha I & II, Kishtwar shivling to name a few. Leading alpinst’s like Stefan Seigrist, Thomas Huber, Marko Prezelj, Hayden Kennedy, and Mick Fowler all had left their mark with stunning first ascents. Donali glacier though received less attention, the only information we could gather about the region is from a report published in American alpine journal when in 1979 a British team attempted Arjuna from the east side.
 So when Tad McCrea and Jon Griffin our good friends from United States decided to explore the Donali glacier region we were super excited to join them. On late August of 2018 Tad and Jon arrives in Manali along with Caro, Whitney and Joss. These three girls are also good friends; their plan is to attempt a new line on the west face of Arjuna (6230 meters). They will go up the Kijai Nala, during the same time we will enter the Bhujnu Nala. We left Manali on 31st of August early morning, four jeeps 10 people carrying the entire expedition luggage. Our goal was to reach Gulabgarh in one day. It was a long and arduous journey through treacherous and at time dangerous road conditions, especially the road from Killar to Gulabgarh, where in sections we travelled on narrow dirt road cutting through sheer granite cliffs. After a day of organizing and completing formalities with local authorities, we left Gulabgarh for the mountains. The wide hiking trail passed through the villages of Chisoti, Hamori and Machail and was littered with garbage notably plastic wrappers. Clearly the result of Machail yatra a popular pilgrimage to the Durga temple situated at Machail village. After arriving at Machail we had some difficulties with the horses and this cost us few precious days. On 7th of September around 4 pm we arrived in front of the white waters of Bhujnu nala fed by east and west Donali glaciers. To access the Donali glacier we had to cross the nala and get to the other side of it. Crossing the nala was challenging, the rapids were too strong to cross them on foot. 
Luckily Tad and Jon had their pack raft with them as they had plans for descending the Bhujnu nala after the climbing part of expedition. Jon an experienced river guide pack rafted his way to the other side. He sets up the Tyrolean and i went first. In an hour Tad, jibbi and others arrives with the entire expedition luggage. We have found a beautiful little meadow with flowing creeks and decided to set up our basecamp here, the altitude reading of the basecamp read at 3500 meters. This will serve as our home for the next few weeks. We look forward to these coming weeks, excited about exploring unclimbed terrain in seldom visited valleys.

Our base camp overlooking the unclimbed walls of Donali

During the first weeks our goal was to get acclimatize and set up the high camp for our intended objectives. The glacier was not in good condition; long stretches of terminal moraine seated precariously above slowly melting glacial bed, and made travelling through the unstable moraine very dangerous. One can see how much the glacier has receded.
A few kilometres from the base camp the glacier forked towards left to the south and one can see the upper sections of the East Donali glacier, at the head of the cirque raises the gigantic east face of Arjuna, guarded by icefalls and rocky ridges. Ahead lays the West Donali glacier, after another few kilometres the icefall at the start of the upper West Donali glacier arrives. 
 The cirque of the upper West Donali is home to a plethora of unclimbed rock walls rises from south to north and then turns right towards the east. Our plan was to set up the high camp at the start of the West Donali glacier. 
East face of Brambha II
Arjuna Peak on left from east side

Continuous spells of heavy rain halted our progress as we were forced to spent lot more days in basecamp than we intended. During the short spells of good weather that we got in between we shuttle some loads to our high camp. On 19th of September we moved up to the high camp with five days of food and fuel. Our goal was to try to climb one of those steep unclimbed rock walls. The cirque has a lot of resemblance to the famous Charakusa valley of the Karakorum’s. Our plan did not materialized, on 20th a major storm broke out and forced us to stay inside our tent for two consecutive days. We could hear rock fall and avalanches all around us. As condition detrained we decided to get down to basecamp. It was full blizzard condition with complete white out. Tad led the descent, finding route through the glacier in these conditions was a masterful display of route finding. We were back to basecamp by evening. 
The weather improved on the next day with clear sky and bright sunshine. On 25th we moved up to the high camp again to give it another shot. We reached the high camp to find our tents completely buried under the snow, we dug them out and settled in for the night.

Our High Camp

 We intended to leave early morning next day and reach the base of the wall by evening, rest for the night and start around 3’o clock in the next morning. The progress was slow, through the waist deep snow at times and it exhausted us, we decided to rest and camp at start of upper glacier. The next morning we started early, climbing through the icefall to reach the ice fields of the upper glacier, which will lead us to the west ridge of the rocky pyramid shape peak that we intended to climb. We climbed up the steep ramp (60-70 degree) on the western flanks to reach first rock pillar of the west ridge. We found a steep gully that we hope will lead us through the steep pillar to gain a shoulder on the west ridge. From there it looked like another few hundred meters of steep rock climbing will lead us to the summit. This is the moment that defines alpinism, when the alpinst will get a chance to test his/her own limit and get to know about the mountains intimate features. One has to be totally focused and fully aware of his surroundings, to play this game. 

Steep rock climbing on the first pillar 

“Breathe breathe” this two words echoed on my mind as I swapped my feet to regain balance on a tiny foothold and looked up, the steep gully continues upwards without much relief. Deep inside the Donali glacier we found what we were searching for ADVENTURE, I moved up the steep rock gully using the hand and footholds it provided, It is very strenuous to climb like this, not only it is technically difficult but also at this altitude @5000 meters lack of oxygen make the heart beat faster forcing me to frequently stop and take rest. After climbing for another half an hour I reached a small stance on rocky ledge and decided to set up the belay. Looking upwards I can see the gully has narrowed considerably and rock wall have closed in, difficult steep ground awaits us. Jibbi followed the pitch with a heavier sack, as he reaches the belay we started discussing our options. The only way forward was to climb up the difficult at times overhanging terrain. Jibbi started leading this pitch, progress was slow, finding protection placement was challenging , we also did not had any aiders with us which made things more difficult. After an hour of effort he decides to bail, he placed couple of pitons and i started lowering him. He was around 20 meter above the belay and we were climbing on a 70 meter rope so lowering him to the belay was not an issue. Again at the belay we had a discussion; the terrain above is proving very difficult with overhanging sections compiled with little opportunity to place protection. We realized that we don’t have any other option at this moment, we have to go down.

 Around 4 am at night we came back to high camp. The snow condition has deteriorated a lot; crust was so thin that we sank almost at every step. Tad & Jon has also abandoned their attempt on Arjuna due to very poor condition on the face. We slept for a few hours at the high camp and next morning started our descent. 
Returning to High Camp

The Donali has not allowed us this time, but we learned a lot about ourselves and the mountains and even before leaving the glacier dream start again, and in pursuit of that magical dream we will be back. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017


The beginning, a new route at Lalung valley, September 2017 

During September 2017, we joined our friends Tad McCrea & Jon Griffin both from the United States, for an expedition to the remote Lalung valley at the head waters of Suru River, in Jammu & Kashmir. 
We started early in the morning on the 8the village of Zoildok on the evening of the10th, via Leh & Kargil, en route crossing some famous high altitude passes.

Zoildok is a small village situated at an altitude of 3650 meters near Ringdom monastery, which falls on the way to Padam from Kargil.  We stayed here for couple of days at Tundup’s home to organise our porters for the hike to base camp. 

Mt Nun (7135mt) & Kun (7077mt) seen from Zoildok
On the morning of the 12th, we drove up for an hour towards Pensi La (4400 meters) and started our hike. On our way to basecamp we had to cross the Lalung nala a few times. After 3 hours of hiking we reached a rather pleasant camping area with flat grassy ground and a flowing creek. We decided to set up our base camp (4150 meters) here, which would be our home for following three weeks.

Base camp @4150 meters

For the first few days at the base camp our goal was to explore the upper Lalung glacier towards the Mummer Col (5400mt) and gain some acclimatization in the process. To do that we hiked up to 5000 meters with Tad & Jon, as they establish their High camp for an alpine style attempt on the east ridge of chiling 1 (6320mt)  

                                           Chiling 1(6320mt) & Chiling 2 (6180mt)                                                   
On our way to High Camp 
After returning to our base camp from the high camp we took a day of rest to feel fresh and regain our strength. We then turned our attention towards a granite buttress rising 600 meters above our base camp. The steep north-west face of the buttress looked promising for providing a line with good quality rock that will lead to the north-west ridge of peak 5200mt, which was definitely the highest point we could see on the  south-east direction from the base camp 
 On 20th September, at around 8’o clock in the morning, we left our base camp to try our intended route. An hour of hike through the steep and loose talus field got us to the base of our route. The line we chose was a groove system through the middle of the face and connected a series of slabs & dihedrals to the top of the buttress.

MAHALAYA,  IV 5.10b R 550 MT
The climb started with a smooth and blank slab for about 15 meters and then eased out. Jibbi led the first part cautiously as the climbing was little delicate around 5.7 and completely run out. As soon as he was on the easy ground we decided to move faster. He put a micro traxion before he ran out of the rope and we started simul climbing. With the heavy pack the start was little challenging but otherwise the terrain was easy and offered spaced but good protection. We simul climbed the first 200 meters before it became steeper and a series of dihedrals blocked our way. 

The starting slab 
After a little rest I decided to lead this block. The climbing was through steep corners. The first pitch of the block offered classic dihedral climbing with excellent stemming and bridging moves. The crack on the left side offered me the opportunity to place good protection, mostly blue & yellow camelots. The pitch was about 60 meters long and was probably 5.10 in difficulty. 

The dream dihedral  5.10
The next pitch was also a hard one, with a strenuous laybacking section and a few moves on thin hands, but was well protected with purple to blue camelots. This was also a 60 meters pitch of around 5.10.
At the end of this steep dihedral section we decided to take some rest. It took us around three hours to reach up to this point; here we used our GU energy gels and Cliff Bars to refuel ourselves 

The thin hand section on the second pitch of the block 
The strenuous laybacking on the second pitch (5.10) of my block
Jibbi took over the lead for the next section, another smooth dihedral followed, which offered some really thin, delicate and run-out climbing. He did a great job of leading this demanding pitch; it was a time consuming and tenuous effort from his part. This pitch was also around 60 meters; we rated it at around 5.10b R. After this pitch we were again on comparatively easier terrain and here we felt the need to move faster. 
The climbing ahead did not look that hard, so we decided to shortened the rope and jibbi started leading with tied off coils. There were couple of 25- 30 meter long 5.7& 5.8 pitches in this part and soon we reached easier terrain and started moving together. We reached the top of the buttress at around 3 pm, climbing 550 meters on the north-west face. We named our route MAHALAYA  (IV, 5.10b R 550 meters).The name refers to the fact that it was Mahalaya back home on that day, which marks the beginning of the famous Durga Puja festival.

Jibbi leading the  demanding , run-out pitch, 5.10b R

Leading with tied off coils  5.8
 As we did not carry any bivy gear or food/fuel we decided to turn back at this point. The ridge in front of us was long and alpine in nature and would have taken a long time. We started our descent following the northwest ridge. For the most part we down scrambled and moved together on a shortened rope using terrain features as belay and protection. A couple of short rappels at the end got us down to the valley floor. The descent took around three hours and another couple of hours of hiking which included treacherous terminal moraine of Lalung glacier, got us back to our base camp.                              
Peak 5200mt seen from the top of the buttress
After 12 hours of effort throughout the day we felt really tired. On reaching base camp our cook, Kishu, greeted us with hot tea & delicious pakodas. We settled in our kitchen tent and soon Kishu served us a delicious dinner of hot rice, dal and mixed veg. We went to bed with a very satisfying feeling that night, after our wonderful adventurous experience 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bananagrams, 5.10, 200 meters , First ascent, Kishtwar Himalayas, September 2016

In September of 2016 we joined Crystal Davis Robbins & Whitney Clark for an expedition in the Kishtwar region of Kashmir in the Indian Himalayas. Our aim was to explore unclimbed rock features and climb them. Crystal & Whitney had their own objective and we were looking forward to attempting something suitable for us. During the expedition we spent around 20 days at the base camp including our forays to high camp and above.While staying at base camp we got attracted towards the rock buttresses that were just above the steep slopes near the base camp. So while returning to base camp from the high camp on 28th of September we decided to take a close look at those buttresses and check for possible lines to climb.The northeast face of the lower buttress looked promising, a steep face offering a series of flakes and cracks followed by some steep slabs,leading to the top of the buttress. We decided to go for this line in the coming days and hiked down to the base camp.
 Northeast face of the buttress, red line route of ascent , violet  line descent route 
The rock buttresses near base camp

  On 30th September after breakfast we left the base camp around 9.00 hrs in the morning.We carried a single 70 mt 9.7 mm rope, a set of nuts, cams ranging from 0.5 to 5, some with double and triple sizes, a cordallete and lots of slings.After  couple of hours of steep hiking we reached the base of the buttress around 11.00 hrs.The weather was absolutely gorgeous without a single cloud in the sky, a stellar day for climbing.
I started up the first pitch, a steep system of flakes offered a route through the vertical rock face. I was cautious as the flakes were solid which provided a lot of confidence; the climbing was steep and strenuous though.I found good protection placements throughout the pitch. It was a long pitch of around 30 mt and I almost used the full size of the rack before reaching the belay. Jibbi followed cleaning the pitch. The next pitch was a nice contrast, easy slab climbing around 5.7 but mostly runout, after about 40 mt  of climbing I set up the next belay. Jibbi took lead for the next pitch,an easy slab (5.7) around 30 mt long with spaced gear, that brought us to the crux pitch of the route, a steep corner system that jibbi led. It was a technical and long pitch,the cracks at sections were filled with grass which took a lot of effort to clean.After a long and demanding lead he set up the belay. I followed cleaning the pitch and joined him at the belay around 13.00 hrs. It was a long 40 mt pitch that tired me out after following with a pack.After the fourth pitch we rested for awhile and had our lunch of almonds and chocolates.
The first pitch 5.10 
Jibbi leading the fourth pitch 5.10
the fourth pitch
Belay at the top of the fourth pitch
After lunch we felt fresh and continued on the route. Jibbi led the final pitch, a slab about 60 mt long. Though the pitch was not hard technically it offered tricky protection and some runout sections. Jibbi did an excellent job of leading the pitch which I followed and cleaned. Around 14.30 hrs we reached the top of the buttress and after spending around 20 mints there we started our descent by the east flank.The descent was little tricky at sections which involved some short pitched down climbing on exposed terrain,after that couple of short rappels leads us to the base of the buttress
the final pitch 5.8
  We started our hike back around 15.30 hrs and after an hour and a half we came back to base camp around 17.00 hrs.Our cook Tensing greeted us with hot tea and biscuits. It was a very long and tiring but equally rewarding day.We were full of satisfaction and happiness after our wonderful adventurous experience. Our route Bananagrams can be graded as 5.10 or 6a+, II


Friday, April 8, 2016


When I first got interested in climbing mountains, one of the pictures that impressed/overwhelmed me was that of the NeverseenTower at Miyar valley that I came across in Himalayan journal vol. 58, taken by Italian alpinist Massimo Marchigianni. Around the year 2000, the valley become popular among climbers all over the world as an excellent destination for alpine rock climbing and big wall climbing at a relatively lower elevation. Chris Bonington famously said it is India’s answer to the Yosemite, so when the opportunity arrived for us to join Crystal and Whitney to go on a climbing adventure in this famous valley, we were not going to let it pass.
After returning from Chatru (3300mt) where Crystal and Whitney made a first ascent of a route on a rocky pinnacle, above Chatru Nala, called CB6A (5450mt), which they named nibbijibbi ridge (5.10, 600mt) they were keen on finding new lines at Miyar also. On the other hand, at Chatru we were focusing on bouldering and even sent a project of mine Smiling Goddess (font 7C). Once done, I was eager for some alpine climbing experience.
The village of Sukhto after the snow fall

After spending three rest days at Vashisht, we started in the early hours of morning on 22nd September; a long drive through demanding road conditions led us to the village of Sukhto (3400mt). By the time we reached evening had dawned and it had started to rain. We put up at Tashi guest house, a home stay run by a local man called Norbu, who arranged for mules and was our guide for the trek to the Base camp of Miyar valley. During night the weather got worse; on waking up in the morning the whole village was cover under a meter of snow. We had to wait out for the day at the guest house since Crystal had developed a stomach infection; she recovered through the day and we packed and organized our stuff for the next day.
On 23rd we left around 8.30 am, the weather being excellent; the terrain was gentle and rolling with only 500mt of altitude gain, but was covered in snow which made some sections tricky. Nearing the base camp, we had to cross the Miyar nala. We hiked throughout the day, covering a distance of around 35 km in 8 hours and reached the base camp around 4.30 pm, at an altitude of 4000mt and set up our two tents. We said goodbye to each other and retired to bed for the night, everyone being amply tired after the day’s action.
Our Base camp at Miyar 

The next day our goal was to hike around the base camp to get some acclimatization; we went towards Tamadong – a very prominent and rocky peak near the base camp, forming the end of the southern rim of the Takdung valley, overlooking the Miyar. Falling north from the main summit was a prominent spur, a feature that prompted the 2002 Slovak expedition to refer to this peak as the 'Walker Spur’. To the west was a subsidiary summit or shoulder, with a series of steep pillars on the north face overlooking the lower Takdung. These had been dubbed 'The Brouillard Pillars' by the Slovaks. 
Tamadong covered under a blanket of snow 
 The weather remained unpredictable with occasional snowfall for the next two days, forcing us to stay at base camp. We spent our time by bouldering in between tent seating. On 28th the weather cleared and we geared up, with full excitement to try our objective. Whitney and Crystal entered the Takdung Glacier to explore and find a line of their own, as we went ahead to attempt Tamadong. The conditions on the pillar turned out to be really complex because of the accumulation of the snow; the slabs were wet and the adversities proved too much for us. Under such conditions, we were forced to retreat. Back at the base camp, we figured out our next goal, and on 29th hiked towards the base of Toro Peak (4950mt): the leftward slabs of the south face looked promising. We hiked down late afternoon to base camp and packed our gear for our attempt next day.
On our way toward Tamadong

Toro Peak (@4950mt)                 

  On 30th of September we started early in the morning around 7.00 am, our goal being trying to get back before nightfall. We did not carry any stove or fuel, no sleeping bags or bivi sheets either, only water bottles and snickers. After hiking through sustained steep hillside and some boulder hopping, we reached the bottom of the south face around 10 am and started climbing. Once we started climbing, we did not consciously concentrate. Instead, because we had stripped away everything that could possibly distract us only the climbing remained. And with one single thing to occupy our attention we could take events as they came. We were hyper-aware of every detail around us: hand and foot holds, gear placements, how well both of us were moving, and we gave ourselves over to that awareness. The climbing went well; in the lower half we climbed some full pitch belayed section, mostly slabs. The first pitch was mostly easy balanced by a little runout; this was followed by another interesting pitch which Jibbi led. The pitch started with an easy slab that led to a short overhang of about a body-length long, the crux section of the climb. The next two pitches were mostly steep slabs, which also involved crossing some overlapping sections. The route became much easier on the upper section and we opted to simul- climb. Around 3 pm we topped out and reached the summit. From the summit we could see point James and Dome peak very close and the famous Neverseen Tower on the horizon, on the east side we could see the  famous northwest face of the Castle peak. After spending around 20 minutes on the summit we started our dissent via the west flank. The descent comprised of a combination of hiking and scrambling and around 5 pm we reached the base of the west flank; another couple of hours hiking took us back to base camp – after almost 12 hours of leaving it. On reaching base camp, we cooked a quick meal and crept inside our sleeping bags as tiredness rolled over us like a sea wave.
On south face of Toro Peak

jibbi leading the crux pitch
The following day Whitney and Crystal came back, after successfully climbing a new line on a prominent formation (@5150mt) opposite of Tamadong; they named their line " Poornima" (5.10, 700mt) which translated to “full moon” making their summit successful on a full moon night. There was a general feeling of happiness after our successful and safe climbing experiences. Norbu appeared with his horses around evening and greeted us with a nice meal that night. The next day we packed up and made the hike back to Sukhto. The weather was gorgeous for the last four days but as we left we saw clouds gathering. We were the last team to leave the valley for the season and got really lucky with the weather. Our whole experience was quite outstanding, leaving us thirsty and motivated for future adventures in this amazing play ground.
South face of Toro peak, simul climbing on the easier upper pitches
nearing the top of the route    

Trip summary                                                   
22 Sep- Arrived at sukhto
23 Sep-Rest day/Snow fall
24 Sep- Hike 35 km to base camp
25 Sep-Acclimatization hikes around base camp
26 Sep-Bad weather/ rest day
27 Sep-Bad weather/rest day
28 Sep-Hike to base of Tamadong, attempt, retreat due to too much snow on the face to free climb
29 Sep- Rest day, hike towards Toro Peak to reconnaissance
30 Sep- Ascent of Toro Peak(@4950mt) via south face/ridge, probably following the 2009 Polish route “Get up in the Morning”( 5.8, 300 mt vertical, 450 mt long), descent via West flank , 5 hours climbing, from base camp to base camp 12 hours.
1 Oct-Rest  day
2 Oct-hike 35 km back to sukhto

1 West flank (20004), 2 Get up in the morning (Polish 2009), 3 Lopez-pfaff (2008), 4 Indian (2012), 5 American (2008), 6 Russian (2008), 7 Indian (2012), 8 East Ridge (Slovenian 2007) 
Source – American alpine Journal.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Chatru 2015

Smiling goddess Fb 7C 

After a gap of four years we came back to this little paradise for bouldering, nestled in a remote corner of the Himalayas.We could see the place has become popular, visited by climbers, trekkers, bikers, tourists  alike.. This time we wanted to try harder lines, that we could not try last time, the most obvious one was the classic  Smiling goddess Fb 7C, this line is located on the well known Smiling goddess boulder just behind Lalu"s dhaba. The problem is a classic one, requiring a series of  hard powerful moves up to the top, then a desperate top out . we stared working the line, after a few session on it over a few days we were able to link the moves up to the top. but the top out remained a doubt, none the less we were happy with our effort 

Jibbi  working the moves on Smiling goddess Fb 7C
After a couple of rest days we felt strong and was eager to try and finish this line ,  On 17th September condition became much cooler offering really good friction on the top out. we wanted to take this chance , on my fifth go on the redpoint attempt  i managed  to match the sloper , and then with the use of my right heel execute the mantle to top out, i felt great joy & relief at the same time after completing the problem.
The start of Smiling goddess Fb 7C 

executing the lower moves
 Nearing the top

The crux top out
Topping out on Smiling goddess Fb 7C
Apart from Smiling goddess Fb 7C  we also climbed some other nice lines , notably the Red House wall Fb 7B  ,another classic close to the bridge, with this send this trip became very memorable and successful for us , We returned to Manali  with a lot of happy memories .

Red house wall Fb 7B

Jibbi sending Red house wall Fb 7B