Asia, India, Kashmir, Shafat Valley, First Ascent of Kova Peak and Gulmatonga Tower

Publication Year: 2004.

Shafat Valley, first ascent of Kova Peak and Gulmatonga Tower. The Curbatts (the Crows) are a close-knit group of alpinists from Menaggio on Lake Como, Italy. In 2002 they planned to attempt a big granite wall on an unclimbed 5,500m peak in a side valley off Zan- skar’s Shafat Valley, the latter leading to the Kun Glacier. However, a combination of events thwarted this attempt. First, the airline lost their baggage and they were delayed 10 days in India before it eventually arrived. Then, the Indian army and the public safety officials wouldn't allow entry to the valley. The mountain could only be photographed from a distance and all plans for climbing it had to be postponed. With time now at a premium the group had to make do with a much smaller peak of ca 4,600m, which they christened the Gulmatonga Tower. On this, they put up Waiting for Militants, a l,000m-high rock climb with technical difficulties of VII+ and an overall grade of EDI.

In the summer of 2003 eight of us left Italy for Delhi, where this time we were able to obtain permission for the expedition from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. From there, we flew to Kashmir with our liaison officer. Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, is a like a decadent Venice. It has paid the price of political and military tension. Despite its beauty, it has been deserted by tourists for years.

Two days’ bus travel brought us to the entrance of the Shafat valley, where we continued on foot, accompanied by a caravan of horses. We reached a site for base camp at 4,050 meters. The Kun Glacier was only a little further on and the 6,930m Pinnacle Peak, first climbed by the Bullock-Workmans in 1906, hovered above our heads. The Indian military was a constant presence (at times a bit cumbersome) during our stay, even though there were no apparent signs of great danger.

From base camp we continued up a large but yet unnamed lateral valley (which we affectionately nicknamed Dream Valley), traversed by an impetuous mountain stream, and closed by a huge granite wall. Between these, 5,500m Kova Peak (Kova means Crow in Hindi) formed an elegant and perfect cone. We set up Camp 1 on the highest meadow below boulders at ca 4,500m and spent a couple of days ferrying climbing gear from base camp and then upward to the foot of the wall.

Once we found a possible line, we needed eight days climbing to reach the summit. The most logical route took the southeast ridge, which we called The Flight of the Crows, in honor not only of its first climbers, the Curbatts, but also the large black crows, which are the only real inhabitants of the wall.

The first two-thirds of the route were fixed. Halfway up the ridge at 5,100m, a large ledge nicknamed “the coffee pot” provided a comfortable bivouac. The weather proved very changeable, sometimes turning more than once during the day. Snow and wind would beat our faces and cover the fixed ropes with ice, making it necessary on occasions to scrape them clean in order to jumar.

The route was made up of a series of slabs, corners, and long cracks for a length of about 1,350m, and rose for a vertical height of almost 1,000m. There were a total of 29 pitches with a sustained level of difficulty from V+ to VII-. The rock was a magnificent compact granite and almost always easy to protect with nuts and cams. On the whole we used few pitons and not more than a couple of bolts for protection, although all of the belays were hand bolted. The summit was reached on August 18 by three team members, but more of us followed on subsequent days.

After the climb we used our remaining days to bring down gear, trying to leave as little trace as possible of our passage on the climb and at Camp 1. Those who still had energy to spend finished exploring the Dream Valley, reaching the pass at the head of the glacier.

Maurizio Orsi, The Curbatts, Italy