I spent the month of July in the far northwestern Indian Himalaya, climbing with Jed Brown, with whom I’ve done a bunch of good climbing, but with whom I hadn’t climbed in many years. Going off some tips from friends and some limited research, we travelled to the Zanskar region to try Kun (7,077m). Our hope was to acclimatize on Kun’s normal route, the east ridge, and then climb the mountain again via steeper, more technical terrain on the south or west aspects. Unfortunately, some last-minute visa debacles saw us arrive in Delhi with only 30 days to legally stay in the country. Based on past experiences at altitude, we thought this should be enough time to climb a technical route on a 7,000m peak if things went well, but unfortunately it doesn’t leave much leeway in case things don’t go quite as planned.
Travel from Delhi to Gulmotonga went pretty smoothly, but the approach from Gulmotonga to basecamp went more slowly than expected, as the donkeys hired to carry our supplies had a really difficult time crossing the boulders on the moraines and glaciers. Once established, our basecamp was in a nice grassy place, conveniently close to Kun, and with some nice boulders to climb on just a hundred meters from our tents. However, as it turned out, Kun’s normal route was much more popular than we had realized. We had fortunately arrived earlier than what is apparently the standard season, and had the mountain to ourselves, but evidence of the area’s popularity was very visible. Perhaps I’ve simply been sheltered from it because I generally haven’t visited popular basecamps in the Himalaya, but the Kun basecamp was definitely the most trashed place I’ve ever seen in the mountains. There was garbage everywhere around basecamp, and scattered at various places on the approach from there up to Kun as well. You might wonder why we didn’t spend some of our acclimatization time cleaning it up, but we didn’t have the resources – I think there is easily 200kg of trash to be packed out…
Our acclimatization seemed to progress at a good pace, perhaps partially aided by my previous trip to Denali, and Jed’s pre-trip acclimatization in Rocky Mountain National Park. Within the first week we visited a 5,900m summit and a 5,500m summit, and not too long afterwards established an “advanced base camp” at 6,100m on the broad, glacial plateau between Kun and it’s neighboring peak, Nun. On July 14 we attempted Kun’s normal route, the east ridge. While the route is very popular and indeed often guided, the clients climb it via fixed rope, which fortunately hadn’t been draped on the mountain yet. The ridge has a fair amount of 50 to 60 degree terrain which would be pretty cruiser if covered in snow, but in the hard ice conditions we encountered, it was tedious simul-solo front pointing. We climbed up to 6,800m, just a couple hundred meters of easy snow walking below the summit, but I suggested we turn around there – Even though I was fairly confident we could easily go to the summit that day, I was wary of having to down-solo a bunch of hard ice while feeling altitude weary.
The biggest problem that we faced on our expedition was the same as I experienced last fall in Nepal: We had a bunch of glorious weather during the first part of our expedition, while acclimatizing, and then a lot of bad weather once well-enough acclimatized to really consider climbing. After our venture up to 6,800m, we returned to basecamp to get some more food and fuel, and planned to head back up almost immediately to tag the top. However, our departure from basecamp was delayed several days by heavy precipitation. We would wake up every morning at 5am or 6am, and most days it would already have started raining by the time we finished breakfast. One day it held off long enough for us to start up, but then when changing into boots at the edge of the glacier it started pissing and we retreated to basecamp.
When we finally did make it out of basecamp and back up to our “advanced base camp,” it was near enough to the end of our trip that we brought lots of food and fuel, and all the technical climbing equipment we would need for climbing on the south or west aspects. I definitely wanted to go to the summit via the east ridge first, which I considered an important safety net before starting up a more technical route, but once that was accomplished we wanted to be well-enough supplied that we could stay up at our ABC and try a harder line without having to go down to basecamp between.
On July 21 we finally went to Kun’s summit via the east ridge. Getting to the base of the route from our ABC was much more work than it had been before, because of the fresh snow that had fallen. Unfortunately the new snow hadn’t stuck to the steeper sections of ridge, and we still did a bunch of tedious simul-solo frontpointing on the way up and down. Going to 7,000m, which was the first time at that altitude for both Jed and I, felt fortunately fine after three weeks of acclimatization. The day after climbing Kun’s east ridge, we spent the entire day confined to our tent at ABC while it dumped snow. The weather was mediocre the next morning as well, and with a bunch of fresh snow, a pessimistic weather forecast and only a couple days left before we were due to travel back to Delhi, we humped our heavy loads down to basecamp. The next day we hiked out to Gulmotonga, and the day after began the journey back to Delhi.
In addition to some unlucky timing with the weather, another problem for our expedition was my health. I felt as though my body was doing alright with the altitude, but I seemed to be slightly sick for the entirety of the expedition. On most days my body performed decently, but I never really felt good, and I was constantly dealing with a bunch of phlegm in my throat. Jed kindly made up for the discrepancy in our health by consistently carrying more than his share of group weight (a nice trait in a climbing partner!), but nonetheless the subtle sickness I was battling definitely affected my willingness to “go for it” on Kun’s steeper aspects in marginal weather windows – On a committing climb your safety is largely dependent on your physical endurance, and mine definitely felt compromised. I think I may have contracted some virus either in the days before departing for India, or en route from Delhi to basecamp, and the prolonged stay at altitude (our basecamp was at 4,550m) depressed my immune system just enough to prevent it from beating the virus. Another possibility, despite feeling very good before departing for India, is that my body was still somewhat depleted from my expedition in Alaska – After all, I wasn’t actually monitoring things such as my resting heart rate.
For me, the biggest lesson of this trip is that 30 days does not give one good enough chances of success for a hard route on a 7,000m peak. That is of course something I already knew, but the experience underscores to me that you cannot underestimate the bureaucratic hurdles that the Indian (or Pakistani, Chinese, Nepali, etc) government might throw at you. I’m glad that we at least got to reach a 7,000m summit for our first time, and that after three weeks of acclimatization the altitude there felt quite reasonable – An experience that should give me a bit more confidence on 7,000m peaks in the future.
We owe a huge thanks to the Mugs Stump Award for helping us afford this trip. There is no doubt that we could not afford to legally climb in the Himalaya without that financial support.