Asia, India, Central Garhwal, Nilkanth, Fourth Ascent

Publication Year: 2002.

Nilkanth, fourth ascent. The Indian Himalaya offers alpinists unique challenges. Many of these mountain peaks have been discovered slowly due to their infamous reputation and bureaucratic obstacles. The British, who are most connected with this area through their colonial heritage, have held a leading role. Arwa, Changabang, Kishtwar, Rimo, and other interesting objectives have been the result of systematic discovery and exploration of the individual mountain chains. As the main expedition of PZS (Alpine Association of Slovenia) for 2002 (Chomo Lonzo in Tibet) was canceled, my enthusiasm and amazement over the continued new ascents by the British in this part of the world gained new dimensions. In the beginning of September, Matic Jost and I redirected our efforts, energy, and motivation. We decided to approach the Himalaya from India as opposed to expensive Tibet. We first chose Kishtwar but due to the political situation could not get a permit, so we opted instead for Nilkanth.

We obtained the climbing permit for Nilkanth in three short weeks. The minimum term for permit application is three months. The Indian Mountaineering Federation therefore generously showed that, with interest, paper work can be done quickly. We asked the Himalayan Run and Trek agency to help us in the field and it offered very good service at a reasonable price (transport, porters, cook, and food in base camp). However, the climbing permit for a mountain above 6500m and the basic expense for the liaison officer alone amounted to $2,900.

Nilkanth (6596m) had received only three successful ascents before we visited it and several unsuccessful attempts from various directions. According to the available information, the southwest face of the mountain seemed the most interesting for climbing. The third ascent of the mountain was completed from this side via the west ridge in spring 2000 by Martin Moran’s commercially organized expedition. We wanted to climb either the south or southwest face, and judging from the only photo we had, we assumed the climbing would be interesting and mixed in character (rock, snow, and ice).

Accompanied by Zare Guzelj, our doctor, we dealt with formalities at the IMF (as the last expedition of the season), reached base camp at 4050m after only three days of walking, and began acclimatizing. The conditions on the mountain contrasted strongly with our expectations based on the only photo we had from this side. There was very little snow. The weather was unstable most of the time-clear in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon (some snow fall). We decided to do the second (and last part) of our acclimatization program on the west ridge, which was of an appropriate height and provided our most probable descent route if we were to climb the southwest face.

We established an advanced base at 5100m below the southwest face and began to climb the west ridge October 13. Conditions were not easy. On the initial slope we encountered many big stones and granite blocks, which were all threatening to move due to lack of snow and ice. The lower part of the ridge turned out to be much more demanding than expected, again due to lack of ice and a thin layer of fresh snow on the rocks. At the beginning we found some unreliable fixed ropes which we didn’t use. At about 5600m we arranged an uncomfortable bivouac and continued to climb to the bivouac site. After another uncomfortable night, we descended all the way to base camp. We rappelled nearly 1000 meters, during which falling rock damaged our 70-meter rope so badly that we reached the bottom of the face with only 50 meters remaining.

On October 20, after four days’ rest, we left for advanced base in order to attempt the southwest face, our main goal. Due to the high temperature, we were exposed to large quantities of falling ice and rocks while approaching the face. When we arrived at our small tent we were surprised to see that the snow and ice bands, which connected the individual parts of the face, had melted. The logical passages were exposed to falling rocks and water. We carefully considered the possibility of a less risky option across steep sections less exposed to stone fall but decided to descend. Next day the weather confirmed our decision, as the whole face was again covered with a fresh thin blanket of snow. The only alternative was to take an illogical line that involved risky rock climbing (exposed to falling rock and ice), where we would have to use rock shoes, different equipment, and a different strategy.

Despite the rapid organization necessary, the expedition was successful. We made the second ascent of the west ridge in pure alpine style and the fourth overall ascent of Nilkanth. It took us three days to climb and descend a 1500-meter-high route (twice we bivouacked at the same spot). The first climbers (who needed seven days for ascent and descent) estimated the route D+/TD- , with maximum rock difficulties of IV+ (UIAA) and mixed climbing at Scottish II to III (see page 369 of AAJ 2001). We more or less agree with the estimate, although given our circumstances and the complex climbing, we felt it more like TD. The conditions necessitated using crampons on plastic boots at all times. We became acquainted with the Indian Himalaya and its organizational features. Slovenians have not been as active here as in neighboring Nepal, and we are ready to share our experience with anyone who might be interested in this part of the world.

Marko Prezelj, Alpine Association of Slovenia