Saturday, August 9, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

‘These girls are tough, they made it to the top’
Yana Bey

The team  at Base Camp
The team at Base Camp

"THESE girls are tough. Otherwise they would never have made it to the top. Some of those Navy lads with whom we climbed Kamet last month wouldn’t have been able to summit this peak," said Pasang Dorjee, one of the guides on the Indian Mountaineering Foundation’s all-women expedition to Argan Kangri (6789 m) in Ladakh this July. The expedition was part of the commemoration of the golden jubilee celebrations of the first ascent of the Everest.

Dorjee uttered these words when as part of the victorious summit party he walked into Camp I in the late afternoon of the summit day on July 20, 2003. The words were a spontaneous tribute to the hardiness and will power of the four members of the team who had become the first climbers to set foot on the summit of Argan Kangri.

Till that morning, it had had a formidable reputation as a virgin peak that had, in 2001, defeated an Indo-British team led by legendary British mountaineer Chris Bonington and veteran Indian climber and explorer Harish Kapadia. Dorjee and the other sherpas had earlier spent two months with a team from the Indian Navy that had climbed Kamet (7756 m) in Garhwal as part of its pre-Everest preparation.


In Indian mountaineering, attempts on virgin peaks are uncommon and women’s expeditions to unclimbed mountains even more so. Last year, in a rare instance, a women’s team led by India’s oldest woman climber, the 62-year-old Chandra Prabha Aitwal, climbed two virgin peaks in Garhwal. The higher one was just above the 6000-metre mark. Though the height is a less formidable factor than technical difficulty, the fact that Argan Kangri is just about 200 m short of the 7000-m mark was significant. Most important, we had devoured the expedition reports written by the Bonington-Kapadia team and were conscious of the fact that we would be the second team ever to attempt the mountain.

Leader Rita Gombu Marwah is the daughter of Nawang Gombu, the first person to climb the Everest twice, and was part of the 1984 Indian expedition to the Everest that put Bachendri Pal on top. Another Everester was Bimla Devi Neoskar, who had been part of the 1993 women’s expedition. Sikkim’s Phul Maya Tamang had just returned from the Everest in May. Manali girl Sushma Thakur had grown up skiing on the slopes above her home. The baby of the team was the 21-year-old Kavita Barthoki, a student in Dehra Dun. Reena Kaushal of Delhi had chucked a teaching job to pursue mountaineering. N. Ayingbi Devi had travelled the farthest, from Manipur.

The doctor of the team was Mumbai’s Bhavana Jadhav. Finally, there was I, the most experienced with 13 expeditions behind me. The expedition began on July 5, when we flew from Delhi to Leh, which is at a height of more than 11,000 ft. "Why aren’t we going by road? It’ll help us acclimatise," I argued. "We are going by air because we are being sponsored by Indian Airlines and we’ll have three nights in Leh to acclimatise," said Rita patiently. In Leh, we were put up by J&K Tourism at their tourist bungalow near the airport. The tourist bungalow was suitably named Moonland. Set in an arid land, it was without any trees. We hoped J&K Tourism would do something to make the place a little green.

Our campsite at the roadhead of Tirit in the Nubra valley, however, was as green as Moonland was arid. We arrived there after a four-hour drive from Leh, passing through Khardung La (18,300 ft). Half the team was seeing the highest motorable pass in the world for the first time and lots of pictures were taken. In Tirit, the outdoor way of life took over. We washed our faces and dishes in a stream, used a sandy field nearby as a toilet and went to sleep soon after dark in tents.

The next day saw us undertaking what was, in the cumulative experience of the team, the most arduous trek we had ever done. The approach march to Argan Kangri takes three days, with the first day’s walk being the longest. It did not help that one sherpa, who had accompanied the 2001 team, told us the site of the first night halt was just over the hill visible from the roadhead. In actuality, it was reached after a steep climb through a small pass called Chang La and then via an undulating trail over an endless ridge until it finally plunged down to Otsaghat, our stony campsite beside the riverbed. The total distance was 12 km. The next day, we climbed up from the Tirit Phu river and went through a small glade onto scrubland and boulders. We camped on a grassy knoll this time but it was getting noticeably colder and windier.

The last day’s trek took us along the riverbed, past a grazing ground called Arganglas. The name Argan was given to a community that grew from marriages between local Ladakhi women and Muslim travellers who came to the area. The word glas refers to a grazing ground, while kangri means peak. A herd of yaks and cows stopped feeding and looked warily at us as we walked past. Just before the Base Camp site (4800 m), a river had to be forded. Fortunately, the water was only knee-deep and not too cold. As the last of us took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our trousers and waded across, the mules and horses began to cross back. Each had dumped its 70-kilo load at the camp and was returning to Tirit. We waved goodbye to the muleteers and turned our faces towards the peak we had come to brave.

Argan Kangri would not be visible until after Camp I but we identified the peaks around Base Camp. Nya or fish peak soared on the one side, while the Yamandaka, which had been climbed by two intrepid Americans accompanying Bonington, dominated the skyline on the other. The day after the arrival at Base Camp went in sorting equipment and food. The sun blazed and we gulped fruit juice thirstily. The next dawn was a stark contrast. It snowed, though lightly, but the members set off to ferry food and equipment to the site of Camp I (5190 m). It was the only bad-weather morning of the entire expedition. The next day was sunny again and a second ferry was undertaken. The 4-km route to Camp I was across moraine ridges on the glacier coming down from Argan Kangri and its sister peaks, the Phunangma glacier. En route were three beautiful green lakes.

The day after, the entire team shifted to Camp I. But it was already apparent who the front-runners in the team were. When the members returned from the ferry to Camp II the next day, Bimla was unable to eat and threw up. The day after was rest day and, that morning, the leader announced the summit party? Phul Maya, Sushma, Kavita and Reena. Bimla and Ayingbi dissolved into tears. But the mountain had done the sorting out.

The next morning, we saw off the four girls and the four sherpas. The route to Camp II (5760 m) was along the glacier and up to the foot of the mountain. It took about four hours to cover it. A change of plan had ensued. Rather than going round the mountain laboriously to set up Camp III, the summit would be attempted from Camp II. The day after Camp II was occupied, the sherpas fixed ropes on the mountain for about 500 m. The remaining 500 m to the summit was to be covered with the members ‘roped up’ together. That evening, the brief conversation between the leader and the summit party over the walkie-talkie had a tone of quiet excitement. They were to leave the camp at midnight and speak to us every two hours from 8 am onwards.

The next morning, it struck 8 am just as those of us in Camp I were preparing to walk up to a ridge to get a view of Argan Kangri. As the set crackled into life, the leader asked, "Where are you?" "We’re on the summit, we’re on the summit," came Reena’s jubilant voice. We cheered the victory.

The rest of the day passed in a whirl. The summit party returned to Camp II, ate and rested for a while. Then they dismantled the camp, packed and hoisted everything onto their backs. It was evening by the time the last of them trudged wearily to Camp I. The girls’ faces were ecstatic. It was the highest and toughest peak they had climbed.