American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, India, Central Garhwal—Gangotri, Swachand, First Ascent of West Face and Second Ascent of Peak

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003

Swachand, first ascent of west face and second ascent of peak. This year’s post-monsoon season in the Gangotri region of the Garhwal was greatly affected by a mid-September dump of three to four feet of snow. Climbing expeditions focusing on east- or north-facing snow or ice routes were unable even to start their routes. Our project, the unclimbed 1,400m west face of Swachand (6,721m), caught the sun in the afternoon, allowing the snow to consolidate.

Swachand is situated in a side valley approximately 25km up the Gangotri Glacier from Tapovan. It is a few kilometers from the main trekking and approach route, and certainly is a tantalizing view in the distance. Swachand has only been climbed once: in 1938, via the Maiandi Glacier and the snowy southeast side to the south ridge, by the Austrians T. Messner and L. Spannraft. The much steeper west face was first attempted by Malcolm Bass and Julian Clamp (U.K.) in 1998, however they were not successful because of abnormally warm weather and stonefall.

John Millar, Conor Reynolds, and I spent several days watching the face from a few different angles, acclimatizing, watching for avalanches, and planning our route. A few days before we were to attempt the climb, Conor developed a bad boil the size of a ping-pong ball on his back. He had to quit and descend to go seek medical help and antibiotics. Thus, it was just John and myself.

Early in the morning of October 3, John and I started out from ABC ready to climb. Up the first snowfield, and onto the ice-shield at the base of the wall. We hunkered in a bergshrund and roped up for the first rock band. After four good M5 pitches we were on the “dragon” snow patch and just managed to frontpoint to the top of it by dark. It took at least an hour to hack out a sizeable platform for our tent, but the refuge was welcome. The nights and mornings were cold (-15° to -20°C)!

The following morning John found a WI5 chimney to get us up to an ice ramp, which led in the direction of a larger left-diagonal weakness that proved a bit of a funnel for rockfall. In the only significant rockfall that we saw while climbing, I was hit hard in the foot, enough to cause some swelling and to hamper my ability to frontpoint. I grimaced and followed, while John led all the pitches for the next day-and-a-half.

The second pitch of day three was definitely the crux of the whole route. John led a full 60m M6 WI5 pitch. I struggled to follow the pitch carrying the heavy second’s pack. We started swapping leads again and reached the upper snow/ice face at sunset.

On the fourth morning, four pitches up ice, snow, and sugar-over-ice brought us to the summit ridge. We were hoping for some easy going at this point, but the traverse to the summit was far from that: big cornices and very windy. We simul-climbed up the ridge on firm corniced snow with one fiddly rock step, at a rate of two breaths per footstep, to arrive on the summit at about 4:00 p.m.

We only spent a couple of minutes on top. It was a sharp summit dropping steeply in all directions, and we were worried about the descent (never underestimate 1938 climbers). The first 300m down the south ridge were sharp and required focused concentration. Finally, we got to safer terrain, did a few rappels, and camped down a little lower for the night.

On the fifth day we were out of food after breakfast. We slogged back up the upper Maiandi Glacier to the col south of Swachand, then dropped down toward the Swachand Glacier. After a few rappels, some down-climbing, and lots of kick-stepping, we reached the base of the face. In the last moments of visibility before some very threatening storm clouds were upon us, we found our tracks from five days before. In a whiteout and with thick and determined snow falling, we managed to follow our old tracks back to the security of fuel, food, and a bigger tent: our advanced base camp. We collapsed relieved and de-stressed.

We were very lucky. Six inches of snow fell that night, plastering every slope. The next morning lots of fresh avalanche debris was visible and new slides and sloughs were coming down everywhere. Patience and good posture are necessary when climbing at altitude. Thus we named the route Mulabhanda, meaning “sphincter clenching,” a yoga-Sanskrit term.

Guy Edwards, Canada

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.