Sunday, November 30, 2003

Mountaineering in terra incognita
P.M. Das

The team on the top of Lampak-II peak with the National and Punjab Police flags
The team on the top of Lampak-II peak with the National and Punjab Police flags

A team of 11 policemen departed from Patiala for the Kalle Bank Glacier in the northern fringe of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve of Garhwal recently. It consisted of P.M. Das (leader), Haripal Sidhu and Vinod Chopra (both deputy leaders), Ramesh Sharma, Inder Kumar, Nari Dhami, Kulwinder Kumar, Mohan Lal, Palwinder Singh, Gurbachan Singh and Anand Singh. Our objective was to explore this region and to climb the peaks Lampak-I (20,750 ft) and Lampak-II (20,280) in the same range. The reputation of the unclimbed Lampak-I peak was formidable. After an abortive attempt, the Scotsman W.H. Murray had recorded in 1951 in the Himalayan Journal: ‘For just one minute, the summit clouds swirled aside, giving us a clear view of the Lampak 20,000-footers, six miles north-east. We saw no attempt was possible by their south-west faces. They presented iced walls like the north face of Matterhorn, only considerably high’.

Base camp was established at an altitude of 4700 m and occupied on May 30 after a two-day march from the roadhead at Juma, and we spotted the Himalayan tahr and the blue sheep en route. Camp-I at 5127 m was a good vantage point for our routes.

Looking south across the Kalle Bank glacier from Camp-II
Looking south across the Kalle Bank glacier from Camp-II towards the core of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. The Changabang peak is seen in the distance

On June 3, I moved along with the team up the 1433 feet and occupied Camp-I, laid out in three tents. Beyond the camp was the route to Lampak-II.

The steep scree slopes made us thankful for our helmets and Camp-II at 5628 m (18493 ft) was reached on June 4 just as a blizzard began. By evening, however, the snowfall had eased and on the next day we were able to leave for the summit by 8 am. There were excellent views on the high peaks of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. By 1.30 pm the weather worsened and there was a white-out. Much to the disappointment of all, I ordered a retreat owing to the snowfall and poor visibility.

The team rested on June 6. The day was utilised for drying wet sleeping bags in the sun. And attending to feverish team-mates.

The summit of Lampak-II: On June 7, we leave camp at 5 am. As Nari leads into the early morning glow, there is a chilling wind which makes the climbers numb with cold. Nari’s rope consists of four climbers, while I lead the second rope, bringing up three others. Gradually, all eight of us climb up the snow slopes to the crampon point. The chilling winds miraculously stop as we negotiate the steeper slopes. We move on belays on to the true summit of the peak. The time is 11.27 am. The GPS with me reads 6258 m (20526 ft) and below my feet is the Ghalon Glacier. Beyond are the mountains of Tibet.

After descending to Camp-II for a hot meal, we move further down and in the fading light of the day we get back to Camp-I by 8 pm.

Ascent of unclimbed Lampak-I: It was decided that a smaller party of experienced climbers would attempt Lampak-I. On June 9, three climbers move up to Camp-I for route-opening to Camp-II the following day.

The party is able to find a site for our Camp-II on the saddle of a spur extending south from Lampak-I. I occupy Camp-I after a load ferry to Camp-II and on the next day move into Camp-II at an altitude of 5617 m. By 5 am on June 13, Nari, Inder and Sangram Singh (a porter) depart, while Mohan Lal and I follow up the loose schist rock of the first stage.

Mohan and I strap on our crampons and begin ascending the fixed rope on the ice ramp at 10.30 am. We follow Inder Kumar, who is directly ahead of us. Soon it is afternoon and as I get my tired frame up these slopes, it is with relief that I realise that the summit is within grasp. Eventually, all five of us are on the summit by 4.30 pm. For the first time in 12 hours, we actually sit down and eat some chocolate and drink juice.

This was the first ascent of a technically difficult mountain accomplished by a totally Indian team. Prior to this, another 6000-m-high peak was climbed in the same glacier as a "warm-up" by a mixed team of experienced and novice mountaineers.