American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Nepal, Damodar Himal, Pokharkan, First Ascent of the South Face

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

Pokharkan, first ascent of the south face. The Alpine Club Damodar expedition was led by Steve Town with Dick Isherwood as deputy. Other members were David Baldock, John Fairley, Toto Gronlund, Martin Scott, Pete and Sara Spillet, Bill Thurston, and myself. Our Sirdar and climbing Sherpa was Kaji, the fastest man up Everest. We approached along the Annapurna Circuit as far as Koto, from where we struck off north toward the Tibetan border and into the spectacular Naur gorge of the Phu Khola. Three days later we reached the village of Phugaon and began a reconnaissance of Pokharkan, which proved to be a far more complex mountain than the maps suggested.

A very long ridge running southwest from the summit to a pass west of Phugaon (which Tilman crossed in 1950) turned out to have several difficult rock steps. The southeast ridge, though shorter, also looked rugged, with a deep saddle between what we came to call Pokharkan Southeast (5,700m) and what was, in effect, the southeast ridge of Pokharkan II (6250m). The east face of Pokharkan II appeared to have a straightforward snow/ice route winding up around serac barriers, so we established base camp at 4,800m below this face. By then illness and the bitter cold had persuaded David and Steve to leave, so Dick took over the leadership. A close encounter with a snow leopard had nothing to do with their decision.

Advanced base was established in a deep saddle at 5,300m, with a view to out-flanking the southeast ridge and gaining the east face. From this point Toto and I climbed Pokharkan Southeast. Vestigial tracks indicated that one of the French or Belgian expeditions, unsuccessful with their attempts at the main summit earlier in the season, had made the first ascent. From the summit we could see that the east face was feasible, but had doubts that the top we could see was the true summit. However, from the saddle it was possible to access a huge high glacier bay below the south face, and our Sherpa team, inspecting this approach, came back full of enthusiasm. We therefore placed another camp at 5,600m in the glacier bay. At this point the Spillets became ill, leaving only six of us to attempt the summit.

We set off from our high camp on November 17 but very soon Dick succumbed to the chest infection that had troubled him for some time and was forced to descend. A glacier ramp led to serac barriers at 5,900m, where I was lucky to be able to lead a 10m pitch of steep ice, about Scottish 3. This proved to be the crux of the route. Above a second ice cliff another glacier ramp led easily to the southeast ridge at about midpoint. Buffeted by strong winds, we climbed the ridge to the summit of Pokharkan II. Here, John, Bill, and Toto descended, while Kaji, Martin, and myself continued across a saddle towards the main summit approximately one km. distant. We reached the 6,350m top and a fantastic viewpoint at 2 p.m. There appeared to be no tracks or other conclusive evidence of the mountain having been climbed previously, although we had understood in Koto that a lone Japanese with a Sherpa team believed he had climbed it just two weeks earlier from the north. A Sherpa’s description of waist deep powder snow had influenced our decision to make the ascent from the south. In two hours we regained our tents and the following day descended to base camp. The consensus was that the route equated to Alpine AD+.

Dave Wynne-Jones, The Alpine Club

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