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Asia, India, Sikkim Himalaya, Northern Sikkim, Various Ascents

Northern Sikkim, Various Ascents. Only one expedition gained permission to climb in Sikkim during 1996. After prolonged, extensive and persistent negotiation, an eight-man Anglo-American group led by Doug Scott became the first western mountaineers since the early 1950s to be allowed to travel to the Northeast, where a group of very beautiful, largely unclimbed and challenging peaks lies close to the border with Tibet.

Until shortly after Partition, the mountains of Sikkim were among the most accessible in the Himalaya and the history of their exploration starts as far back as the end of the 19th century (W.W. Graham and two Swiss guides climbed Forked Peak, 6108 m, and Jubonu, 5936 m, in 1883). Early this century a number of the foremost mountaineers of the day were attracted by the many supremely beautiful peaks that lie generally on or close to the Sikkim-Tibetan frontier. Kangchenjunga was of course well-known to climbers from before the turn of the century, but Western eyes were first opened to the peaks in northeast Sikkim from 1907 onward by the Aberdonian chemist, Dr. Alexander Kellas. Kellas visited Sikkim on no less than six occasions between 1907 and 1920 and probably traveled and climbed more extensively throughout the country than anyone else since. Little is known of the man or his achievements due to his retiring nature and the fact that he wrote so little of his exploits. Apart from one occasion, when he brought European guides as companions, he climbed solely with a loyal group of local porters. In 1910 he made 10 first ascents of peaks over 6000 meters, including Pauhunri (7125 m), at that time the highest peak in the world to be climbed, and Chomoyummo (6829 m)—a remarkable feat even by today’s standards. He joined the first Everest expedition in 1921 but fell ill on the way through Tibet and died aged 53.

The approach to the mountains of the Northeast is not far from the route generally used by several pre-war Everest expeditions traveling from Darjeeling to the Rongbuk Monastery, and it will come as no surprise to find that familiar names “detoured” on their way home to make first ascents. In 1936 Shipton and Kempson left the Tibetan plains and crossed the Kongra La in to northern Sikkim to climb Gurudongmar via the west ridge. (However, in the opinion of the 1996 expedition, there is a possibility that this pair climbed only the West Summit [6630 m] and perhaps regarded the east and higher summit [6715 m] as something else entirely. If this is the case then the first ascent of Gurudongmar may well not have taken place until 1991, when the main peak was climbed from the northeast by a team of mountaineering instructors based at the Sonam Gyatso Institute in Gangtok.) In 1938 another Himalayan veteran. Bill Tilman, crossed the Naku La much further west and climbed the long plateau-like peak of Chumangkang (6212 m) immediately south of Chomoyummo. After the Second World War the area was visited and explored by Tony Smythe (first ascent of Lama Anden), Harry Tilly (second ascent of Chomoyummo) and Wilfred Noyce (second ascent of Pauhunri), the last two with the indomitable Angtharkay. In later years northeast Sikkim became a regular venue for the then-Hon. Secretary of the Himalayan Club, Trevor Braham, and friends, but no significant ascents were achieved.

Not too long after those care-free days, the Chinese attacked the undefended northeastern borders of Sikkim. The Inner Line was drawn up through the semi-autonomous principality and foreign travel was taboo. Much of this area now features military installations and is sporadically patrolled by the Indian Army. Since 1980 several ascents of various peaks have been achieved by infrequent military expeditions, but by the 1990s, with Sino-Indian relationships much improved, it seemed possible that this eastern region might be re-opened to a foreign expedition.

With considerable help and hard work from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, support from the daughter of the late King of Sikkim who had recently started a trekking agency, and finally the assistance of India’s Chief Election Commissioner to clear Home Office difficulties, permission was granted to the 1996 Anglo-American group less than 10 days before scheduled departure from their home countries. Phil Bartlett, Paul Crowther, Julian Freeman-Attwood, Lindsay Griffin and Doug Scott from the U.K. were joined by Mark Bowen, Mike Clarke and Skip Novak from the U.S. Any potential foreign expedition visiting the area now must be prepared to pay an additional peak fee to the Sikkim government and take (plus equip) both an Indian and a Sikkimese liaison officer to Base Camp. This team was most fortunate to have as their Indian liaison officer and as an additional member of the climbing team Balwant Sandhu, one of the country’s most successful and experienced mountaineers and an old friend of Scott’s, with whom he had made the first ascent of Changabang in 1974.

At the beginning of October, Base Camp was set up near Yule Samdong (ca. 4800 m) near the head of the Lachung Valley, with the primary goal being the first ascent of Chombu (6362 m), the so-called Matterhorn or Shivling of Sikkim, and a possible route on the south side of Gurudongmar (6715 m). However, with little information at hand a thorough reconnaissance was essential to ascertain the most feasible approaches. This was not to be an easy job, as the peaks were largely invisible for most of the duration. Lying east of Nepal and directly north of the Bay of Bengal, the mountains of Sikkim are renowned for their poor weather, frequent snowfall and general cloud cover. The considerable precipitation on these often steep-sided peaks produces spectacular flut- ings and corniced crests much more in keeping with Peruvian mountains than those of the Himalaya. Unfortunately, last year’s monsoon was particularly heavy and late, augmenting the problems that might normally be experienced when climbing in this region during the autumn.

During much time spent reconnoitering a feasible route on Chombu and safe access to the south ridge of Gurudongmar, several small peaks received first ascents (Gurung, 5691 meters, a small subsidiary peak of Gurudongmar, and Pt. 5350m on one of the outlying ridges of Chombu, both by Bartlett and Griffin), while Freeman-Attwood, Novak and Scott crossed the Sebu La and were surprised by its difficulty, which they attributed to glacier recession (a rappel was necessary on the west flank). On October 15 and after a previous reconnaissance, Bartlett, Bowen, Freeman- Attwood, Griffin, Novak, Sandhu and Scott made the first ascent of Chombu East (5745 m). Their route followed steep and somewhat avalanche-prone slopes to a col between the Central and Main summits, then traversed the sharp north ridge to the highest point. This ridge, at first a corniced edge, gave way to a narrow snowed-up rock crest, with the exposed crux reserved for a steep and precarious climb out of a notch shortly before the summit. Interest was maintained throughout by the very early arrival of a full-blown blizzard with heavy snow and high winds.

The team were now set for their main objective and, having found the most feasible access to Chombu, reached the northeast ridge at ca. 5800 meters but were prevented from advancing further by the large quantities of (often thigh-deep) unconsolidated and avalanche-prone snow. In the vain hope that conditions might improve with time and better weather, the team turned their attention to the south ridge of Gurudongmar, where they felt the snow would be in a more climbable condition. However, persistent bad weather lasting more or less to the final days of the month put an end to the expedition.

Subsequently, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation decided to open the region to any mountaineering expedition and have now advertised the fact accordingly. Prospective parties have plenty of enticing objectives from which to chose (including several virgin 7000-meter peaks) and an opportunity to travel in a very beautiful and little known part of the Himalaya, but they will continue to be subjected to the whims of Indian military commanders in Sikkim, who could easily deny access at the last moment.

Lindsay Griffin, Alpine Climbing Group