Between 16 Oct and 3 Nov 2011 David Kinsella (AUS), Arun Mahajan (IND/USA) and Roger Payne (UK/CH) explored mountains on the east side of the Thangsing Valley in West Sikkim, and climbed three summits as alpine-style day routes. This report corrects some information published in AJ 2009 and mentions other climbs on nearby peaks, which help to answer questions that have surrounded the earliest ascents in this area by WW Graham in 1883.
The Thangsing Valley is the route of the popular trek to Gocha La, which enjoys magnificent views of Kanchenjunga. The area explored in 2011 is just to the south of Lamalamani (c.5650m), and above the Arralang Valley. Julie-Ann Clyma and I had made an initial reconnaissance of this area on a trekking trip in Oct 2004 with Loreto and Ian McNaught-Davis. Having seen the potential and made some local contacts, we returned in March 2005 to make the first ascent of Lamalamani (with Kunzang Bhutia and Saga Rai of the Sikkim Amateur Mountaineering Association - SAMA) and the first alpine-style ascent of Tinchenkang (6010m), which we understood to be the third
ascent of that mountain.
We saw some peaks to the east of Lamalamani, which later I mistook for Narsing in one of my photos that was published in AJ 2009 (page 155). The peak shown is not Narsing, but an unnamed peak given 5526m on the 1:150,000 Sikkim Himalaya map (published by the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research 2006).
We called the group of peaks explored in 2011 the Bahini Group, and named individual summits to reflect the character of each peak. These peaks are not shown on the Swiss map, and as far as we could ascertain, none of them had names or had been previously climbed. We hope the nomenclature we have used (see below) is acceptable locally, regionally and to any interested organizations.
With our base camp at Thangsing, we established a very simple but comfortable advanced camp at around 4800m below a prominent rock tower we called Chowkidar. On 23 Oct we made an acclimatization reconnaissance to the col between Lamalamani and Prabha Behin (an area I first explored in 2005, but did not discover much then because of cloudy conditions).
Tridesh (c.5100m) was our first peak, which is just west of the Bahini Group, and was climbed on 27 Oct by Kinsella, Mahajan, and Payne. Initially we descended from our camp to reach the peak, which we climbed via its northeast flank on snowed up rock (II-III, PD+). From the summit we could see that the east and south side of the mountain had extensive rock faces, and we had good views of the lakes below at Lam Pokri.
Soneri Behin (c.5250m) was our second peak, which was climbed on 28 Oct by Kinsella, Mahajan, and Payne (also PD+). We initially retraced our route of the previous day, then headed up to a hanging valley with a very small glacier which we ascended to reach the east ridge via some very unstable rock. The ridge itself was more stable with enjoyable rock steps (II). From the summit we retraced our route down the ridge, then descended the snow couloir (II) on the north side to make a circular route back to Chowkidar camp. The northwest ridge of Soneri Behin includes another lower summit we called Kanchi Behin, and some remarkable rock towers we called Churi.
Prabha Behin (c.5500m) was the third peak and was climbed on 29 Oct by Mahajan and Payne. It is the highest in the group, and is probably the summit on the Swiss map marked as 5480m (but felt somewhat higher). The ascent was via a snow and ice crest (III) in the broad northwest couloir, with a traverse at its top to the left to reach the crest of the north ridge. The crest of the ridge is mixed and exposed with some technical rock climbing (IV, AD+/D-). The summit block is small, and required an athletic single tool pull up and heel hook to reach (and which turned out to be completely unnecessary as an easy ramp comes up from the south side). The connecting ridge to the lower summits to the west looked loose initially, but the lower summits look attractive, in particular Kali Behin, which seen from the west is a very impressive black tower.
Lamalamani and Jopuno
Just north of the Bahini Group, in spring 2010 a UK/USA team led by Geoff Cohen climbed a new route on the North summit of Lamalamani (Cohen came to the conclusion, as we did in 2005, that the unclimbed South summit is higher). Cohen’s team also visited the cols on both the south and north sides of Lamalamani, and made an ascent of the prominent rock summit in the north col. The team also planned a new route on Jopuno (5936m), but instead repeated the elegant and technical West Ridge to the top of the granite (which was first climbed in challenging weather in March 2008 by an American team led by Jason Halladay). Also on Jopuno, Julie-Ann Clyma, Hugh Sheehan and I climbed a new route on the Southwest face on 7 Nov 2009, which provided very enjoyable mixed climbing at around D. We reached the crest of the West Ridge at the top of the golden granite and followed the ridge on loose black rock
and snow crests. We climbed towards a high point, which from photos of the 2008 ascent I had understood to be the summit. However, on getting close it seemed that the highest point was much further on. It was too late to continue along the ridge, so we reversed our route back along the ridge with darkness arriving just as we started a sequence of abseils down the face. In 2001 Deepak Kumar Chettri, Kunzang Bhutia, and Sagar Raj climbed on the right side of the
southwest face and along the south ridge of Jopuno (which was a very notable effort undertaken with minimal equipment). Having recently checked with them, it seems they reached a summit on the south ridge that may not be the highest point of Jopuno.
WW Graham in 1883
The first claimed ascent of Jopuno was by WW Graham who described his climb in 1883 as “incomparably the hardest ascent we had in the Himalaya, owing to the great steepness of the glacier work” (Alpine Journal, vol. xii August 1884 pp 25-52). Even though Graham seems to have been a strong climber and explorer, at the time of Graham’s reports some questioned the accuracy of his claims (most notably the highly experienced and reliable Alexander Kellas, whose doubts have re-emerged in the recent biography). Whatever Graham climbed in 1883, from my knowledge of Jopuno (which has rather small glaciers and steep ridges and faces), I think he must have been on another peak (which eventually perhaps it may be possible to identify). Hence, as for Jopuno, until someone makes a traverse of the summit ridge, or reaches the summit on a clear day to verify the highest point, the ascent by Halladay and Josh Smith in 2008 could be the first time the highest point of the mountain had been reached. Meanwhile, what is certain, is that there are many peaks and summits in Sikkim that can be explored and climbed in alpine style, and that access can be arranged through the local tourism organizations and Sikkim State authorities in Gangtok. In eight trips since 2004 to peaks in West and North Sikkim, I have enjoyed valuable assistance and great help from friends in SAMA, and
Barap Bhutia and the staff of Sikkim Holidays in Gangtok. Also, the Travel Agents Association of Sikkim (TAAS) has undertaken impressive work to increase capacity and skills of service providers, and recently initiated actions to develop a structure for mountain rescue working with SAMA and the State authorities. So, you can approach organizations in Sikkim with confidence, and know that they can make the necessary arrangements for exploratory treks and expeditions.
Nomenclature for Bahini Group:
Tridesh! Three lands