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    IMF Expedition to Mt. Tirsuli West (7035m), 2008

    In April 2008, I was asked to lead an expedition to Mt. Maiktoli on the eve of IMF's Golden Jubilee celebrations. As I had already climbed Maiktoli in 1981 along a new route, I was not very excited about attempting the same peak all over again. The President (IMF) suggested that the team attempt a less climbed peak that would test their true mettle.

    The Tirsuli group of peaks came to mind. The Tirsuli massif is allegorically alluded to the trident of Lord Shiva & consists of three sheer  peaks - the Tirsuli Main (or I) -7074m, Tirsuli West (or II)-7035m, and the Tirsuli East (or III)-6663m. An alternative view expressed by some climbers is that, when seen from the Nanda Devi East side, at the head of the Milam glacier, one observes three high summits of over 7000m linked by a central plateau with a complex barrier of ridges, walls & glaciers guarding access to the top. These three peaks, namely Hardeol (or Tirsuli South) -7151m, Tirsuli Main/East - 7074m & Tirsuli West-7035m constitute the trident of Lord Shiva. The massif is located approximately 22 km north of Mount Nanda Devi in the Uttarakhand Himalaya. The Tirsuli Main peak was climbed for the first time under the leadership of veteran Shri C.K. Mitra. I called upon Sri Mitra at his Kolkata residence and obtained his detailed report of the 1966 expedition and after making an in-depth study of the same, I thought of attempting the same peak. However, I subsequently decided upon Tirsuli (West) as it offered greater technical challenges.

    The first attempt on Tirsuli West (30°34’45’’N, 80°00’14’’E) was made by a Polish team in 1939. Four climbers lost their lives while attempting its summit (Article-4, Himalayan Journal-58). A poorly documented record by C.D. Arora describes an attempt to this peak in 1968 from the Bagini glacier side. Roger Payne and Julie-Ann attempted it from the west ridge in 1995. In the same year another two member team from Britain-New Zealand attempted it from the south wall. It has also been reported that a British expedition in 1999, tried the south-west ridge route but failed to reach the top. In 2001, two more attempts were made - one by a British team under the leadership of Colin Knowles via its north wall, whilst a German team under Ralf Messbacher attempted its south wall. Both attempts were unsuccessful. There have been reports of several more attempts, the details of which are very sketchy. Tirsuli West was eventually ascended in 2001, from the south-west ridge by a team of ace and seasoned climbers from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. In fact, this peak had been amongst the last of unclimbed 7,000 m (22,966 ft) peaks in the Garhwal and Kumaon districts of the Uttarakhand. After this first ascent in 2001, there were more unsuccessful attempts - but it was the Indian BSF team that stood atop its summit in September 2007.

    Our 2008 IMF team consisted of  Amresh Kumar Jha(Bihar), C Y Basavaraj(Karnataka), Debraj Dutta (West Bengal), Goutam Saha (West Bengal), K.Wallambok Lyngdoh (Meghalaya), Mohan Lal (Punjab), Puyam Cha Mohon (Manipur), Rajat Jangir( Rajasthan), Subrata Chakraborty (West Bengal), Susanta Bhattacharya( Medical Officer-West Bengal), and  myself besides three High Altitude Assistants(HAAs) i.e., Phurba Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa, and Dorjee Sherpa - all from Darjeeling.

    Mt. Tirsuli (West) is located in an area of inaccessible ridges of steep gradient and is about 44 km away from Jumma, the last road-head on the Joshimath - Malari roadway.

    We were flagged off by Maj. H.P.S. Ahluwalia, President IMF & a veteran Himalayan mountaineer. Leaving the IMF campus at 9 pm, we reached Rishikesh, 232 kilometer from Delhi, at 4 a.m., and headed almost immediately for Joshimath. Our load, close to a ton, was sent directly from Delhi to Joshimath.

    At Joshimath (1875m/6152ft), where we planned to stay for a day to coordinate the logistics of our trek to the base camp, we were let down by our agent, who had not organized or arranged any of our requirements. Rajat, Mohan Lal & Debraj took over the task and resolved the issue efficiently. Meanwhile, it began raining heavily, giving me sleepless nights.

    The next day, our three vehicles arrived at the Guest House and we set out for Jumma. This was May 25.  Jumma is 40km away from Joshimath, a two-hour drive on the Joshimath-Malari highway. Malari is at a distance of 61km. We made a brief breakfast halt at Tapoban, 15 km from Joshimath. There is a hot spring just 2 km beyond Tapoban. On the way to Jumma, we drove past the villages of Reni (the historic birthplace of the Chipko movement of Garhwal) and Lata. I recall my enjoyable interaction with the villagers of Lata during my return from Maiktoli in 1981, almost 27 years ago. I still cherish those memories - my first close appreciation of the large hearted hill folks. 

    We proceeded along the Dhauli Ganga that drains the Darma valley, situated in eastern Uttarakhand. The Panchachuli east glacier flows into it at Dugtu-Dantu villages, while the Mandab river joins Dhauli at Sela. It also drains water from the East Kamet Glacier, Dunagiri and Bagini glaciers.   

    The Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, which was designated  a National Park in 1982 and thence  a World Heritage Site in 1988 by UNESCO,  spans an area of 2237 sq.km, bound by tributaries of Alaknanda river; Dhauli Ganga in the west, the Girthi Ganga in the north and the Gori Ganga in the east. This area is a vast glacial basin; the glaciers feed another tributary, the Rishi Ganga, which runs through the centre of the Reserve on its way westward to the Dhauli Ganga. It is at Vishnuprayag, where the Dhauli Ganga finally meets the Alaknanda. The Dhauli Ganga / Alaknanda is one of the five source rivers that make up the Ganges, which, after converging with the Bhagirathi River at Devprayag flows thereafter as the holy Ganges.

    At Jumma, twelve ponies awaited us to carry our load on the approach march to the Base Camp.  From Jumma, one has to cross a bridge on the Dhauli Ganga River from its true right bank to its true left bank.  We planned to stay at the village school at Ruing (2578m/ 8458ft) which was about 4 km away from road head. The vegetation in the Dhauli Ganga valley consists mainly of conifers such as deodar (cedar wood), surai (cypress), and kail (blue pine). A particular type of banj (oak) is also found on the higher altitudes. One also comes across many aromatic plant species on the slopes, which are used for making incense sticks.  We had to arrange a second ferry using seven more ponies to haul our remaining load to Ruing - a small habitation. The villagers are friendly and cooperative, and engage in cultivation of rajmah, grains like ogal, phaphar, potatoes as well as crops such as amaranth etc.

    We woke up the following day to a clear, crisp morning. The ambient temperature was 5 degree centigrade. It had snowed at night as was evident by fresh deposits on the upper mountain slopes. The mostly uphill trek to the village Dunagiri (3615m/11861ft) was through a forest that stretched about 9 km. It takes about four and a half hours for a medium pacer to reach Dunagiri village from Ruing. It was a pleasant day. The team members were feeling joyous & relaxed, and walked around the village, and sought blessings at the village temple.

    Dunagiri or Dronagiri, is the last village in the valley, named after the famous mythical Dunagiri (7066m) Parvat in the epic Ramayana, from where Lord Hanuman is believed to have procured Sanjivani, a plant to save the life of Lakshman. The Dunagiri glacier is one of the important glaciers of Dhauli Ganga system beside the Bagini, & Changabang glaciers.  A stream originating from the snout of Dunagiri glacier at about 4240m, popularly known as Dunagiri Gad, has cut through the gorge on the other side of the village.

    Resolving the differences amongst the constantly squabbling pony-wallahs became a regular chore. On the 27th Rajat, Phurba and I set forth for the Base Camp, which we proposed to set up at an appropriate location at Bagini Khadak (4450m). The route stretched along the winding course of Dunagiri Gad. We had to cross a small bridge after about a kilometer from the Dunagiri village to follow a track along the true right bank of Dunagiri Gad for about 2.5 km and reached the confluence of Dunagiri and Bagini Gad. After this junction our route followed along the Bagini Gad for about three kilometer to one of the lateral moraines of the Bagini Glacier. We located the BC at the Bagini Khadak, about 13 km from the Dunagiri village. It was a widely spread Bugial with a wide variety of flowers blooming in profusion on a grassy meadow. We had reached the Base Camp site in just under six hours. By early afternoon it started to snow, which soon intensified together with strong bellowing winds. We struggled to pitch a mess tent in the strong wind. The stragglers reached the camp site by 2.45pm, completely drenched. About two inches of snow left a white sheet on the surrounding area. Our Global Positioning System (GPS) handset indicated that the coordinates of our Base Camp were 30°34.064’N/79°56.253’E.                                                                                                                                                                                                   

    The villagers of Dunagiri, Ruing and even some distant villages, though conscious of keeping the mountains clean and maintaining the ecological balance of the environment, however, have begun crowding the mountain slopes hunting for the famous 'Kida-jari' (biologically known as 'Cordyceps Sinensis'), a larva-fungal amalgamation of immense medical value that fetches a high market price. They search for them by digging the ground at considerable depths. Fortunately the fragile ecosystem has till date survived, but for how long? The soil in the mountains is held together by the tough roots of grasses and countless shrubs that grow in profusion on their slopes. The uprooting of these grasses and shrubs will soon lead to loss of foliage from the mountain slopes and add onto the serious problems of global warming induced glacial retreat and environmental pollution by the dumping of non degradable garbage. The forest authorities should take immediate & stern steps to stop such serious denudation of the mountain slopes for the sake of our future generations.

    A 'Recce cum Ferry' foray was conducted the next day to identify a suitable Camp-I site. It was now May 28. An appropriate location on the Bagini glacier head at a distance of about 8 km at an altitude of 5145m (coordinate 30°33.486’N/ 79°58.661’E) was eventually selected. In the afternoon, as soon as Bhagat Singh returned to the Base Camp, he seemed to be suffering from lack of oxygen. I was surprised by this development since he was a local who had joined us as a high altitude porter (HAP). Further, even before I could really assess the gravity of the matter, I found him ready to leave for Joshimath. It transpired that he had never worked before as HAP! This was an unhealthy situation for the expedition; such disruptions have led to many expeditions being aborted in the past.

    My intrepid team included C.Y Basavaraj, an Indian Air Force officer from Karnataka and a cool, witty problem solver - an asset to any team. I assigned Basavaraj to keep the existing three locals in good humour.  Our ferries to the Camp-I site continued over the next two days, and we established Camp-I on May 30. The forward party included Debraj, Wallambok, Rajat, Subrata, the HAAs, and me. We still had four clear hours to put to productive use, and used this time for a reconnaissance of the route to Camp-II for our planned attempt along the difficult south-west ridge of Tirsuli West. That would save us a day, which we could use later for opening a possible route to the summit along its eastern face. I was deeply concerned about the high accumulation of snow on the hanging glacier on the south-west ridge-line. The NIM climbers had climbed the peak through this route in the month of July, with seven of them reaching the elusive summit on the 17th of July, 2001 - almost one & a half month later than that of our attempt. The second success by a BSF team had put atop five climbers in September, 2007 in their 45-day long expedition. Their attempts were in later months than ours. Thus, the probability of avalanches must have been much less. While my team members embarked on their recce, I spent time assessing the probable fall line of potential avalanche debris, using a powerful binocular.

    Experience gathered during my first attempt on Mt. Everest, on the Great Couloir, was now helping me take difficult decisions on this expedition. With my observations I felt that the fall line would be on the direct left (i.e. in west ward direction) to the south-west ridge. However I awaited the findings of the recce team. Their feedback made me optimistic about my personal observations, but I wanted to have a reconnaissance of the eastern face done as well the next day, to assess the possibility of such a hazard.

    The route to the eastern face was found to be riddled with crevasses and beset with falling rock from above the ridge wall. So we decided to attempt via the south-west ridge only, accessing the same from its left side. Camp-II was identified at a distance of hardly two hours away for a loaded medium pace walker.

    Young Phurba had tremendous climbing zeal and mountain sense. Along with Tashi, they formed a formidable pair. In the evening, however, I separated them for the next day's movement. Phurba was to be in the forward party along with Debraj, Wallambok, Rajat and Dorjee to open the route for Camp-III. They were to set out early in the morning while Tashi would stay with Subrata & me for the establishment of Camp-II. Mohan, Amresh, Puyam Cha, and Puran - new additions in Camp-I on the day, were to provide ferry to Camp-II.

    Camp-II was established at 5415m after negotiating the crevasse-riddled icefall located at the head of the Bagini glacier. The coordinates of the Camp-II were 30°33.906’N/79°15.013’E. We had fixed one full length of rope between Camp-I and Camp-II to negotiate slippery rocky outcrops on icy patches.

    The mountain started baring its fangs beyond Camp-II as we began to negotiate its challenging SW ridge which is largely inaccessible due to its steep gradient. Any one seeking to access it needs to climb through a combination of rock and ice on a rotten rocky base. A high  risk rock-fall zone! About 1210m of fixed rope had to be laid to open up the  route to Camp-III which we established at an altitude of c. 5740m at coordinates of  30°34.219’N/ 79°59.336’E. By June 3, Camp-III had been converted into a habitable location.

     I made some changes in the forward group that would negotiate the route beyond Camp-III. Barring myself and two others I sent back all the other members to the Base Camp for recuperation. By June 6, the forward party had fixed another 800m of fixed rope opening the route almost up to the dangerous hanging glacier c. 6400m. They returned to the Base Camp for some well deserved rest. I was able to ensure sufficient rest for the summit-attempting climbers. They were kept on a high protein diet regimen. The word Recuperation, as commonly used, refers to a period of rest that ensures the recovery of musculoskeletal function. This helps in the complete recovery from joint, tendon, or ligament wear and tear and is an essential procedure by which a mountaineer is able to overcome fatigue, illness, injury, and also mental stress.

    I planned for the summit attempt in a single push from the Base Camp, immediately after the recuperation period.  I opted out of the summit team as I felt that would enable me to ensure better coordination leading to the maximum number of climbers reaching the top. Basavaraj had arranged three new Walkie-Talkie sets from Army HQ at Joshimath that would come to good use for this purpose since our existing five sets were malfunctioning from the onset. Furthermore, the location of our Camp-I was such it provided me a clear view of every movement of our climbers and I could thus respond expeditiously in the event of any eventuality. The process of recuperation at BC continued till 8th June morning and then our D Day arrived. Every one was emotionally charged up and we all pushed forward. Rajat was asked to man the BC along with Rudra. Doctor, Basavaraj, Kushal & I occupied Camp-I. Puyam Cha along with Puran Singh were ensconced at Camp-II and the rest pushed up to Camp-III for the summit attempt.

    Everything was unfolding as per our plans. By the 9th afternoon nine climbers readied themselves for the summit push from the Camp-III. I instructed all of them to move forward on 10th morning for the long and demanding climb to establish Camp IV at  c. 6630m. The ridge was severely broken and at places highly exposed. It turned out to be a tedious climb of almost 13 hrs, with full load, along the ridge-line. En route, they had to fix another 550m of fixed ropes to ensure a safe return. Three tents were precariously pitched on a narrow icy ledge just beyond the dangerous hanging glacier. The next morning was spent in another recce to negotiate the rock pitches located above the hanging glacier that led to the summit, by a group of three climbers with the objective to make a summit attempt that night.

    At midnight nine pairs of crampons started crunching the icy slopes beyond Camp-IV in the light of the thin arcs of their head torches. Their movement was clearly visible even from Camp-I as the nine light arcs stood out distinctly in the darkness of the nocturnal gloom.

    'The night was unforgettable -  though a little windy, the sky was clear with glittering stars some of which were known to us, and we never felt lonely as we could constantly see the encouraging light signals emanating  from our comrades at Camp-I & they seemed to be with us  all along till the end of the lingering night', recounted Debraj.

    'Since long the horizon to the east became reddish & we were eagerly awaiting the sunrise to combat the extreme cold we were challenged by throughout the night', both Amresh and Wallambok narrated to me later.

    'It was a most glamorous sunrise we could observe which possibly was without any parallel 'said Goutam and Subrata. Mohan, in his unique demeanor, smilingly expressed,'yeh (summit) to hona hi tha!

    Their thrilling journey climaxed at the summit of Tirsuli West at 7.42 am on June 12, 2008 under a bright and a shimmering sunlight.

     Of the summit experience, the climbers observed 'It was an almost flattish but corniced summit having a gradient of about 20 degree running from west to east. And from the top one could see Garur (6504m); Mana (7272m), Kamet (7756m) and Abigamin (7355m) and Tirsuli Main (7074m) and Chalab (6160m) on the north-east-east. To the near south-south-east the peak Hardeol (7151m) appeared as a close companion. To south-west there were some peaks like Rishi Pahar (6992m), Saf Minal (6911m), Kalanka (6931m), Changabang (6964m), Hanuman( 6075m), Dunagiri (7066m) and its eastern sister Purbi Dunagiri (6489m). While far beyond towards the direct south Mt. Nanda Devi (7817m) with its East peak (7434m) were a fascinating sight indeed. Towards further south-west, peaks like Trisul (7120m), Mrigthuni (6855m), Devtoli (6788m) and Maiktoli (6803m) became visible. Chaukhamba (7138m) was also distinct because of its unique shape towards the south-west-west, while far beyond to the north, Uja tirche (6202m) was visible. Towards the far north, the barren lands of Tibet could be seen & directly below we could see the tents of our Camp-I, and III. We were jubilant and overjoyed'.                

    Down at Camp-I, I found Doctor, Basav and even Kushal dancing and rejoicing. However moments later, they offered their gratitude to the mountain gods and lit innumerable candles & dhup at the stone altar erected by Phurba, Tashi and Dorjee on the day we had established Camp-I, praying for the safe return of all the summiteers. I felt at peace but would remain anxious till the boys returned.

     The summit had been reached and thus the IMF mission was now accomplished. As per our GPS readings,  the height of the summit was found to be 7032m (3m less than that provided in maps) with coordinates  of  30°34.813’N/ 80°00.130’E. A total of three more ropes i.e. 330m had to be fixed in the stretch between Camp IV and the Summit. Thus in total about 3000 meter of rope had been fixed. Wherever possible we retrieved the pitches of fixed rope.

    The summiteers were Amresh Kumar Jha, Debraj Dutta, Goutam Saha, K. Wallambok Lyngdoh, Mohan Lal, and Subrata Chakraborty, and the three HAAs - Phurba Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa, and Dorjee Sherpa.

    They descended to Camp-IV where they rested - having been on their feet more than 12 hours, with little food since the previous night. The next day, winding up Camp-IV and Camp-III, they descended and reached Camp-I where, with the initiative of Doctor and Basav, a victory gate had been erected to receive the summiteers. There was a great sense of achievement, and celebrations continued for a long time. They reached Camp-I by late afternoon and were thirsting for good food and rest. I advised them to descend to the Base Camp, where a sumptuous dinner awaited them.

    All throughout the expedition the weather had remained gloomy with regular snowfall or heavy rain regularly between 2- 4.30 pm. During the initial days, the mornings were clear. The wind was gentle & eastwardly at around 20 kmph. Around noon the wind would pick up into occasional gust at about 30 kmph. The grass temperature in the mornings was seen to be in the range -1 degree to -5 degree Celsius at 6-00 am. It used to creep up to +22 degrees by 1-00 pm, dropping to +2 to +6 degrees by 6-00 pm. However, the weather remained fine during the final attempt to the summit and till the return of the team to the Base Camp. The mountain gods had been benevolent!

    The mountain flora and fauna of the area were studied by Dr. Susanta Bhattacharya, who also collected samples of rocks, plants and animal excrements for subsequent studies.  Debraj Dutta photographed a large number of birds including Fly-catchers, Magpies, Griffon-vultures and Monals.

    The team diligently cleared and cleaned the area they camped in. Garbage left by previous teams was much less compared to the other popular routes of Uttarakhand Himalayas.  However, the team also cleaned up the remnants of garbage left by other teams.  Non bio-degradable articles were carried back as a separate load down to Joshimath. Only the items made up of paper or cloth were burnt down and the ashes covered up by rocks. The team kept photographic evidence of those activities.  

    We reached Dunagiri village on June 14, marching on the double, and were inNew Delhi early morning on the 18th of June. We held a press conference on the19th, organized by IMF, where we were accorded a grand welcome in the Flag-in ceremony.

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