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Zanskar Expedition Zanskar Expedition
2019-05-02 11:00:00

One of the amazing things about being a young alpinist from a country with a strong climbing tradition is that with an average internet connection, a computer capable of running Google Earth, and the skills to weave together a compelling grant application, you can find yourself able to attempt exploratory climbing in some of the greatest mountain ranges on Earth. So it was that in June 2018, me and my climbing partner, Alex, found ourselves in the Zanskar Himalaya, below a mountain that until that moment, we had only ever seen a single photograph of.

When we submitted our grant applications earlier in the year, we were conscious that expedition climbing was a reasonably new game to both of us. As a result, we researched our objective meticulously, and had spent months poring over the logistical details of the expedition. What were we going to take? How were we going to get there? And how were we going to train?!

Having a city-based 9-5 job required some inventive training methodologies. Alex had been a permanent fixture on the ‘stairmaster’ in the gym near his office for months leading up to the trip, and I’d put a few shifts in carrying bags of rocks up the lofty summits of the Brecon Beacons. Despite me breaking my ankle soloing on the gritstone over the winter, we put our new fitness to good use, dialling in our brew-stop tactics on a one-day enchainment of the five Ben Nevis winter ridges over the Easter bank holiday, and, as a result, we arrived in India optimistic that we could burn off even the most acclimatised Sherpa.

In Delhi, we stopped overnight at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, where we fended off an infestation of geckos in the bathroom and were warned--animatedly--of the ‘impassable’ 30° glacial slopes around our chosen objective. After much polite nodding, our next task was to source the cool sum of 71,000 Rupees, which we had foolishly neglected to withdraw before leaving the UK. Fortunately, our training came in handy as we raced between Delhi ATMs and eventually stumped up the cash for our peak permit. Having established that we didn’t need to purchase 500m of static rope to ‘equip’ the north face of Chiling II, we boarded a flight bound for Leh, excited to escape the 47°C heat wave that was melting the capital.

After tying up some logistical loose ends in Leh, two days of driving brought us to the roadhead just beyond the spectacular Rangdum monastery. The second half of this journey, which featured rough, unmetalled roads from Kargil into the mountain proved distinctly testing for Alex. He spent 8 hours groaning in the fetal position on the backseat of our jeep, and would periodically display some uncharacteristic athleticism by jumping out and vomiting violently in various spots along the Suru valley, courtesy of an undercooked omelet. If in doubt, opt for paratha. For me, the journey passed quickly, as I mused on the many towering, roadside alpine rock objectives in view and occasionally prodded Alex to check that he was still alive.

With Alex on the road to recovery from his digestive funk, and having recruited a small army of flip-flop clad Rangdum locals, a short half-day walk and a crossing of the Suru river allowed us to establish a base camp on the toe of the Lalung glacier, where we would spend the next three weeks.

Our base camp was still a complex, two-day walk from the base of Chiling II’s north face, and so we established an advanced base camp on the medial moraine of the Lalung glacier, some 8km further up the glacier, with the help of Karma, the self-professed ‘big load specialist’. While Alex and I stumbled inelegantly across heaps of moraine material, Karma romped up the loosest of ground with a 20kg sack, his feet equipped only with a luminous pair of Nike Airmax. Our delusions of sherpa-like fitness fell further behind with every sinking step we took, and the persistent cloud cover on the Chiling peaks left us concerned about our chosen line.

After a few reconnaissance sorties to a glacial shoulder overlooking Chiling II north face, we scoped out a proud line on the south buttress of the unclimbed Lalung III as a viable--and worthy--acclimatisation objective. After a day of rest at base camp, we launched into knee-deep slush on the lower slopes, and climbed 800m of couloir to a palatial bivi below an intriguing mixed summit pyramid. As fate would have it, not long after we settled down for the evening we were engulfed by poor weather, and an uncomfortable night sent us packing back to the glacier, worried about the build-up of fresh snow from the previous night.

For the duration of our trip, the weather had followed a distinctive, ‘micro-monsoon’ pattern, whereby every morning would dawn clear and sunny, before the weather socked in just hours later. Every evening was marked with precipitation, falling as rain in base camp and as fresh snow on higher elevations. It was becoming increasingly obvious to us that a long weather window was not going to materialise, so we hatched a plan to go ‘Paul Ramsden’ style on the north face of Chiling II: as heavy as possible, with the intention of taking our time on the route, climbing during the good spells of weather in the morning and hunkering down early before the daily snow blew in.

Two taxing days of physical labour put us below the north face of Chiling II, poised to launch up a system of steep goulottes that seemed, from what we could see, to link up to the median snowfield. After that, we suspected the crux of the route would be finding a way through two compact bands of granite slab, before a steep finale up an intimidating 400m-high corner system leading directly to the summit. Intimidated, but feeling physically and mentally prepared for the task ahead, we crossed the bergschrund early the next morning, making good progress up the lower gullies.

What we hadn’t accounted for in our masterplan, however, was that during the spells of clear weather Chiling II took the liberty of shedding the previous night’s fresh snow down the face in the form of abominable spindrift. Despite our efforts, the torrent of snow won, and we retreated to our bivi spot below the face to rethink our plan. The next morning, dejected by the previous day’s spindrift waterboarding and with food and gas now dwindling for a serious attempt on the face, we made the difficult decision to abort back to ABC. Our trip was over.

Our decision-making was vindicated by the worst weather system we had seen so far chasing us back to our equipment cache at ABC. We celebrated this Pyrrhic victory with some delicious beer-flavoured energy gels, loaded up the rest of our gear, and stumbled back to BC where Narish, our cook, would surely have put some tea on.

While it was disappointing to come away empty handed, our time in the Himalaya taught us a lot. Not to trust Delhi ATMs, for instance. Or that a snorkel might be a good item to bring on future trips. The Suru valley is a stunning area, particularly well-endowed with beautiful alpine rock objectives with unusually easy access from the road. We will certainly be returning in the future.

Words by |Matthew Harle