When getting up is not nearly enough: the first ascent of Yamandaka, in the Indian Karakoram.
Braced precariously at the edge of the waterfall, Mark Wilford hesitated for a terrifying moment to assess the situation. He fought to maintain his footing on the slick, algae-coated rock, while glacial-fed water blasted over him, stretching his rappel line bowstring tight. His next actions would be critical. Fifty feet below, the waterfall plunged into a deep, ominous pool, how deep he didn’t know. “I’m cutting my pack loose,” he yelled up in a desperate voice. Fearing he might drown in the churning Maytag below, he wanted every opportunity of escape. Then he unlocked the screw on his rappel device and disappeared over the edge. A day before we had been the first to stand atop a magnificent mountain in the Indian Karakoram—and now we were caught in a nightmarish descent of a water-filled canyon. How the hell have we ended up here, I thought. With more than 50 years combined experience in the mountains, we surely could have avoided such a predicament.
Our international expedition of eight had arrived at base camp some three weeks prior at the head of the Phunangma Glacier, a remote and unexplored region of northern Ladakh, in India. Our leaders were the legendary climber-explorer Sir Christian Bonington and his good friend and companion of several Himalayan adventures, Harish Kapadia of India. It was Harish’s connections and intimate knowledge of the big Indian ranges that opened the doors for our unique opportunity. Other than the highest peak in the valley, which we named Argan Kangri (6789m), the plan was simply to climb whatever looked best.
Having no photographs of the region, our expedition was truly exploratory, which meant we could easily have found ourselves surrounded by unappealing mountains of crumbling rock or impossible icefalls. Fortunately that was not the case, and we were delighted to find dramat-ic-looking peaks with knife-edge ridgelines and steep granite walls. It was like being in the Alps for the first time—only all the routes were unclimbed and none of the mountains had names.
Our group included Jim Lowther, also from the U.K.; Divyesh Muni, Cyrus Shroff, and Satyabrata Dam from India; and my partner Mark Wilford and myself from the U.S. Captain Vrijendra Lingwal of the Ladakh Scouts would serve as expedition Liaison Officer. Two friends of Harish’s, Dr. Burjor Banaji and Suman Dubey, would accompany us as far as base camp. The expedition was organized to allow maximum flexibility of the various teams to explore and climb as much as possible. Wilford and I were immediately drawn to the north face of Peak 6,281 and its striking central pillar, and we at once made it our primary objective. Although the weather was warm and stable when we arrived, it soon began to show signs of deterioration and colder temperatures. A race was on between our time to acclimatize and the encroaching winter conditions.
On September 8, after a few days acclimatization at 17,000 feet at our communal advanced base camp, Mark and I traversed to the base of Peak 6281 with heavy packs. We carried five days of food, fuel to melt water for seven, two ropes, and a light technical rack, including ten pitons, three ice screws, and some wired nuts and cams. We carried no etriers or hauling devices. We also took a tiny tent in hopes of finding ledges large enough to erect it. As we reached the base of the face it began to snow, so we made camp beneath a huge boulder.
The morning of the 9th dawned partially clear; yet despite a fresh plastering of snow we started up the initial ice slopes leading to the prominent central rock buttress. After six long pitches of low-angle ice, with some easy rock, we reached a large notch in the ridge that we called First Tower. Unable to find an adequate bivy, we rappelled one ropelength to a small rock ledge. Inside our tiny tent with the stove brewing, we felt almost removed from the towering ridge above us. Fickle weather kept us in the tent till noon the next day, but at the first signs of clearing we hurriedly packed our gear and started up. No sooner had I begun the first pitch than full blizzard conditions ensued.
Moderate mixed climbing, interspersed with sections of scary, loose blocks, typified the initial terrain. We managed just three pitches in full winter conditions before an unlikely bivy spot atop a precarious ice mushroom appeared beneath an overhanging wall. We hacked and flattened the mushroom until it was large enough for our perch. With part of the tent hanging over the void, it was not hard to imagine the horrifying scenario should the ice mushroom collapse during the night, sending us instantly to the end of our tethers, trapped in our sleeping bags in a tent filled with all manner of paraphernalia. We tied our boots securely to the belay and fortunately the night passed uneventfully.
We awoke early to cloudless blue skies, and with great optimism I set off on the lead. Two technical rock pitches followed, involving tension traverses and a short section of aid. A third, easy pitch led to the prominent snow ridge marking the top of the second tower and the beginning of the final pillar, the obvious crux of the climb. It was about 1 p.m. and the afternoon sun was just upon us. The pillar was compact granite without a clean crack system. I started up a thin seam that led up the left side of the pillar, first free climbing, then aiding, digging ice from cracks to find placements for knifeblades and small wired nuts. Suddenly, a television-sized block dislodged from my hand pressure, sending Mark scurrying to the far side of the belay ledge as we both watched the spectacular missile explode 3,000 feet down the face. To my horror, I saw that the block had nearly severed the rope, just ten feet from my end. After retying and chopping off the end of the rope, I continued up the seam to where a shallow ramp broke across a blank wall. A pendulum off a knifeblade led to a small stance, then a delicate traverse, with my crampons scraping on small edges, took me to a final overhang and a hanging stance. I had one remaining carabiner!
Mark lowered out the haulsack with what little rope remained, and we watched it swing into space, arcing across the smooth wall. Following the traversing pitch on jumars with a heavy sack was awkward, hard work and meant leaving several of our precious pitons. Another pitch of similar climbing followed and it seemed to deliver us through the steepest part of the pillar. Mark took over the lead, working his way up mixed ground to a steep slab and a bit more aid. As the sun dipped behind neighboring peaks and the cold began to creep through my clothing, I prayed for a good bivy ledge. Arriving by headlamp, I found Mark busily chopping away at a 50-degree ice slope. After two hours we produced a pair of narrow ledges, two feet wide, that we could barely lie down on. Too tired to cook or eat, we melted a liter of water and settled into our sleeping bags on the tiny perches. During the night, wind-blown spindrift avalanches began to pour down the face with regularity, building up and forcing us off the slippery ledges. To make matters worse, I began to have severe coughing fits. I assured Mark it was not altitude related, just a cough aggravated by the dry, cold air and my heavy breathing. Secretly I worried that it might be the onset of pulmonary edema.
We had both managed a bit of sleep when morning dawned gray with menacing black clouds on the horizon and a stiff cold wind out of the west. My coughing seemed to have subsided for the moment but I was tired from the hacking. We could retreat and it would likely take all day—or we could go for the top. It appeared we might summit that day, hopefully before the storm hit. It seemed a pity to retreat, being so close, and, with the season well advanced, we both knew we would not be back. The decision to continue seemed easy, but it was imperative we make the summit that day as we couldn’t bear the thought of another open bivouac. Wilford, in the lead now, started off on a scary, tenuous pitch, hooking axes on a film of ice and deftly mantling onto a snow-cov-ered slab.
Above, a long series of snow-covered ramps led left to a steep corner and finally the summit icefields. I jumared up to Mark as he announced excitedly that the summit was in sight. And then he was off in full ice-climbing mode, armed with two axes and three screws for a 200-foot pitch of bullet-hard water ice. We had been certain in base camp that it would be neve. Mark climbed smoothly, and at the top of the pitch he belayed at a small rock outcropping. On the next pitch he had to run out several hundred feet of sixty-degree ice, placing just one screw, saving the other two for the belay. By now the cold, lack of rest, and altitude were starting to take their toll as swirling clouds and blowing snow enveloped us. The storm had arrived.
As we sorted the mess of frozen ropes and gear at the belay, we wondered if our companions far below could see us nearing the summit. A final hundred feet of ice led to the summit cornice, where Mark traversed left and glimpsed our anticipated descent down the northeast face. He hollered down a frightening description of unstable cornices above deathtrap gullies. After traversing back right under the cornice to its narrowest point, he managed to chop a body-size notch, plant his axes in the soft snow, and bellyflop onto the summit snowslope, just 40 feet below the true summit. By the time I reached Mark the storm had achieved blizzard status, and after scraping out a tent site we collapsed inside, exhausted. It snowed all night and into the morning, dumping over a foot of snow as my coughing fits intensified, keeping me and Mark from any sleep.
By noon the next day the skies showed signs of clearing, so rope-less we climbed to the true summit, shook hands, snapped some pictures, and marveled at the awesome view. All around were range upon range of unclimbed mountains and unexplored valleys. And far below were our companions, waiting, wondering what we were up to.
After a lengthy discussion we decided our original plan of descent down the northeast ridge to the Phunangma Glacier was too risky given the amount of fresh snow and avalanche danger. We opted instead to go down the gentler south face to a smooth, disarming glacier we could see below, hoping that the glacier descended into a valley that eventually would lead us back to Arganglas and our base camp. We lacked a map, however, so in reality we could only guess how the glaciers and valleys connected.
Three rappels got us to easy down-climbing and the long glacier. By mid-afternoon we reached the snout, and our valley appeared to curve toward Arganglas, just as we had hoped. With a little luck, a leisurely walk would see us back in base camp by the next afternoon in time for beer and celebrations.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. Snow-covered talus and towering boulderfields blocked our way and slowed progress to a crawl. By nightfall we found ourselves only a few miles below the glacier, exhausted but at least safely camped in a serene meadow. We ate our last bits of food and in the morning were awakened by a curious, marten-like creature that seemed fascinated with his strange visitors. In the cool dawn, tired but happy and completely unaware of what lay in store for us, we headed down the picturesque valley. Although seemingly out of danger, we both suffered from that uneasy feeling one gets when you suspect something very wrong is in the making. We both questioned why such alpine meadows were completely devoid of livestock or herders.
By mid-morning we had our answer. Our gentle valley funneled into a deep, narrow gorge, plunging down and out of sight. “We’re fucked with a capital F,” Mark declared. There was no way we were going back up and over, and it was now day seven on five days of food. We had to commit to the canyon and hope it would lead us down.
At first the descent went well, as we hopped from one side of the glacial stream to the other and scrambled down short cliffs. It was really quite beautiful, with the sheer, red-colored canyon walls above us covered with magnificent rhododendrons. Brightly colored birds darted about.
But soon the canyon walls began to close in and the stream rushed stronger. “Ever done any canyoneering?” I asked.
“Not till now,” Mark said as we rigged a rappel down the first of many waterfalls. The anchors were the tricky part, as we had to search, sometimes in vain, for cracks in the compact, polished rock. Once, at the lip of a 70-foot fall, we piled the largest boulders we could move, slinging the base of the stack, and lowered over the edge. Then things got worse. The canyon became a water-filled channel with no place to stand. We were forced to our knees to prevent flipping over on the greasy surface, as we lowered down in the turbulent water, hoping we’d find a stance for the next rappel. It was like being flushed down a giant toilet. That’s when we came to the waterfall with the deep pool.
It seemed an eternity as I waited for Mark to appear on the other side of the canyon, and I recall thinking to myself: What if he doesn’t make it? Do I try the same thing? Then I saw him on the other side of the pool, giving me the big thumbs up. Moments later I found myself in the cascade, repeating the same crazy antics. After I joined Mark, we spread our gear out on the rocks to dry—and rest and assess the damages. Mark’s camera was destroyed but fortunately all our film was dry. We continued, making more rappels, with more wading through deep pools and channels. Exhausted, we began falling ass over teakettle on the greasy rocks.
About then we came to the end of the line. We stood together on a boulder at the lip of a huge waterfall as mist from the crashing water filled the air. Beyond, the sheer canyon walls twisted steeply down and out of sight. We gauged the falls to be about 200 feet high, the length of our remaining rope. Peering over the edge, Mark said slowly, “We could be trapped down there and no one would ever find us; we’d just slowly starve to death if we couldn’t get out.”
There was no way to break the overhanging waterfall into two rappels—and coming back up the rope was out of the question should the canyon below prove impassable. It seemed we were trapped. It was now late in the day and getting cold, and it looked as if it might rain. Anxiously, we searched the canyon walls for a weakness. One side of the canyon overhung radically and was smooth, with few cracks. On the opposite side a steep slab led up to a vertical wall where a series of giant blocks, precariously cemented in place with mud, formed a slight weakness. We had five carabiners, half a dozen nuts and pitons, and no slings. We stripped the leashes and straps from our crampons and ice axes to make crude runners, ditched unnecessary gear, and prepared for the final roll of the dice. In mountain boots and soaking wet underwear, Wilford started up the first terrifying-looking pitch. A hundred feet up he squeezed into a chimney, placed some marginal gear, hung his pack, and started up over the blocks. The first one was about the size of a grand piano, and the only way up was right over it. I held my breath; it held. Next was a short roof followed by 15 feet of dead-vertical climbing on loose, sandy flakes. After a brief pause the familiar “I’m goin’ for it” floated down, so I moved as far left as possible and braced myself. With the gun to the head, there are few climbers smoother than Wilford, and he pulled through the steep wall flawlessly. Shortly, I joined him at the belay; amazingly all the blocks had held. “That was the scariest pitch I’ve ever led,” he said. And this coming from a climber who had made a career of bold solos and first ascents.
Two more steep pitches led to third-class terrain just as it got dark. Following faint ibex trails, we skirted the shoulder of the canyon rim until finally emerging on the mountain slope. Beneath us were cliffbands and stacks of house-sized boulders. We didn’t dare risk negotiating the loose terrain at night and so settled into another bivy on the hill with just a liter of water and no food. Our concern now turned to our comrades on the other side of the range. Surely they must be worried, and we feared they would soon alert the military base to dispatch a helicopter—and that was the last thing we wanted. At least we knew that Chris was not one to panic, having been in similar situations many times before.
At first light we descended the final slopes with care and at last arrived in the Nubra Valley. Several times we heard the chop-chop of helicopters and feared they were searching for us. From the valley floor we got a good look at our descent canyon; we had been within 600 feet of easy ground but had made the right decision: the final section was a continuous waterfall.
A few hours walk saw us to the first bridge over the Nubra River, where a military sentry was posted. We were met with warm smiles, congratulatory handshakes, and a welcome platter of fried bread and hot tea. We inquired if anyone spoke English. “Yes, English, yes,” responded the senior-looking soldier, and we launched into our story in an effort to impress upon our host the importance of contacting the army base in Diskit. We had met with the friendly and accommodating General Ashok Dugal at the beginning of the expedition and were anxious not to inconvenience him or his men in any way. After about five minutes of one-way conversation it became apparent that our host didn’t understand a word of what we were saying, and so we gave up and enjoyed the bread and tea. Soon a porter we recognized from base camp showed up; he didn’t speak English either but was obviously relieved and happy to see us. Finally, after flagging down a Jeep with an interpreter, we learned that Harish and Chris had sent him down from base camp to look for us. If there was no sign they were to launch a search on the next day! Relieved, we sent the porter back to base with a note that we were safe and would take a few days rest in the Yarab Tso Inn.
Hitching a ride up the valley, we were picked up by an American tourist en route to Srinagar. She was quite excited to hear of our adventure until all of a sudden her face dropped and she said, “You have no idea of what’s happened, do you?” The date was September 15. To our disbelief she vaguely described the shocking terrorist attacks of September 11. Without phone, TV, or newspaper, it took several days, listening to crackly broadcasts of Voice of America, before we could piece together the horrific details.
Back in base camp we found Chris, Jim, and the rest of the team fighting deep snow and avalanche conditions on Argan Kangri. At last altogether in base camp, we enjoyed a hearty reunion. Mark and I were quite moved to learn that on the seventh day of our ordeal they had built a stone altar and prayed for our safety; I suspect those prayers helped see us through. Our Indian friends had made first ascents of two other lovely mountains, Abale Peak (6360m) and Amale Peak (6312m) while Harish was busy exploring some high passes and valleys to the west. There were still plenty of interesting, objectives, but in light of the volatile international situation we decided to cut the expedition short. Besides, winter seemed to be coming early to the Karakoram—and we’d had enough.
In keeping with local tradition, and with Harish’s help, we named the mountain Yamandaka after a fierce yet benevolent Buddhist deity. Our route was named Barbarossa after the book we’d been reading. Barbarossa was the German code name for the invasion of Russia during World War II, undoubtedly one of the most brutal campaigns in the history of warfare.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Arganglas Group, East Karakoram, India
First Ascent: Barbarossa (1200 meters, VI 5.9 A2) on the north face of Yamandaka, Peak 6218m, near the Phunangama Glacier, from September 9-13. Descent of the south face to the Shingskam Topko Valley, September 13-15. Mark Richey and Mark Wilford.