Saribung, a.k.a. Seliben (6,328m), first ascent. During October, Peter Ackroyd, Steve Furman, and I made the first ascent of this peak north of the Annapurnas. In 2002, while making the first ascent of 6,152m Gaugiri further north in the Damodar, Peter and I had viewed a handsome range of mountains to the south. To our knowledge this had been little explored, much less climbed. Upon our return to Kathmandu we consulted with Elizabeth Hawley, and then with the literature. It turned out that a few of the Damodar peaks had been climbed in the early 1980s by Japanese but until a couple of years ago the area had been closed to mountaineering. In the last few years, to try to increase tourism, Nepal has added over 150 peaks to the permitted list. Peter’s and my ascent of Gaugiri was the first expedition to take advantage of the new regulations that made the organization needed to attempt peaks below 6,500m less bothersome.
As the three of us flew to Nepal, we planned to climb a peak named Birkuti, which had been given conflicting elevations between 6,300m and 6,900m. Upon meeting with Elizabeth Hawley in Kathmandu, we discovered that Birkuti had been climbed several times. A last minute scramble brought us a second peak permit, this one to Saribung. We were confident this had not been climbed. The peak was located much more in the center of the range and was therefore less accessible. It had been attempted twice previously by Japanese.
On October 2 we flew by white-knuckle charter from Kathmandu to Honge, an airstrip in the Manang Valley. From there we journeyed up the Phu Khola. Steve and I had explored the Phu Khola in 2000 and had made the first ascent of an unnamed 6,152m peak a couple of days northeast of the last village, Phu. We have named this peak Na Gore U South, after the deserted prehistoric ruins that stand near its foot. However, we had no idea of what the upper valley might present and were anxious to determine whether a pass into Tibet existed at the top.
A guide with horses was hired in the village of Phu and he led us to the upper part of the valley. We reached the edge of the Khamjungar Glacier in a couple of days. From this vantage point it was clear that there was no pass into Tibet, at least not where the map indicated it might be. Instead, there was a 600m wall of rock and ice. Our guide indicated that he had been into Tibet to trade salt but that the closest pass, a difficult one, existed far to the east.
As to what might lie up the Khamjungar Glacier, our guide had no information: the locals had no interest in a zone like this, which was devoid of grazing. The few peaks on the Khamjungar Glacier that had been climbed previously, had been reached from the north and west, never from the glacier itself. We were perhaps the first humans to set foot there, let alone traverse its cal3km length.
After several days of exploration of the glacier and its nasty moraine, and then finally sighting our objective, Saribung, which was only visible from a point above base camp, we established a high camp on the edge of the moraine at ca 5,730m. The day moving up to stay at this camp was punctuated with an early morning evacuation of a porter, who had contracted pulmonary edema. We sent five out of our 15 men down to the village of Phu with the porter. From there he was evacuated a couple of days later by helicopter and recovered completely.
On October 15 we negotiated the lower icefall and began encountering difficult snow conditions. We reached the north col and could see into the heart of the Damodar Range, which had only been explored by two or three Japanese teams over the last 20 years.
When the peak steepened to 70°-80° near its summit, we really wondered whether we would be able to get enough purchase in the miserable unconsolidated snow to gain elevation. We had to finish up a steep headwall at the top of the north ridge, which we had ascended to that point. The view from the top was incredible: monstrously twisted summits and glaciers all about us, the Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri to the south. To the north I could make out last year’s peak, Gaugiri.
We headed out to Kathmandu by walking down the first part of the Annapurna Circuit trail to the road head at Besisahar. That journey was made more interesting when our hosts at one village rushed us into their house to hide us in darkness, having been notified that Maoist rebels, engaged in a bitter six-year civil war with the central government, had entered the village and “taken it over.” They were said to be going house to house, extorting money. Because of American military aid to the Nepalese army, the anti-American sentiment had increased significantly. Our sirdar, who had suffered significant trouble from the Maoists in his own village, where they had extorted potatoes and money from him, was even more alarmed than our hosts. A modest amount of medicinal whiskey and cigar smoke by candlelight calmed our nerves. In the middle of the night, when it was not quite light enough to see, we took flight from the village, avoiding all conflict with the Maoists. We were soon down at the next village for breakfast, surrounded by Nepalese army troops.
A wild and remote area, the Damodar Himal offers untold exploration for those who are interested in such things. This was my fourth trip to the range in four years, and each one has produced at least one first ascent of a 6,000m peak.
Jim Frush, AAC