NZ/GB KISHTWAR: A MACC Fund Expedition
The Anglo-New Zealand Kishtwar is a bit of a grand name for Richard “Reg” Measures’ and my (both AC members) trip to the Indian Himalaya – originally Steve Fortune from New Zealand was going to join us as well, but two months before departing, work commitments meant he was unable too. The aims of the trip were to make the first ascent of the North Spur of Flat Top (6100m) and the South Face of the Kishtwar Eiger (circa 6000m). Ultimately we were unsuccessful in attempts on both of these peaks due to unseasonably bad weather.
‘…it was like Scotland in winter on a bad day.’
Flat Top and the Kishtwar Eiger as situated above the Brammah Glacier on the southwestern side of the Kishtwar Mountains that are situated in Jammu and Kashmir; due to a militant insurgency it is not popular with foreign visitors. We approached via a very circuitous route from Manali, over the Rhotang pass, to Udaipur onto Gulab Garh, where we registered with the Police, and onto Kishtwar itself. From Kishtwar we drove towards the Marau Valley; and the first of many delays at the 7 Military checkpoints we encountered, each of which took 1-2 hours to get through – everyone was very friendly, they just are not used to having any foreign visitors. There is a project to Dam the Marau Valley and the road head is situated where the Dam is going to be constructed. A two day walk with mules, via Sondar then up the Nanth Nullah, got us and our equipment to basecamp.
Our basecamp was located at Sattarchin, or according to the locals the “terrorist cricket pitch”, as apparently during the height of the militancy terrorists would play cricket there. Sattarchin is a lovely meadow with a freshwater spring at 3400m at the end of the Brammah Glacier. It took us a week to get from Delhi to Basecamp and we arrived on the 20th of September. On the 22nd and 23rd of September, we had continual torrential rain at basecamp, which fell as snow higher up, burying the mountains in deep snow for the rest of our trip. The weather pattern after this was for the morning to be fine, by midday the high peaks would cloud up, and sometime between midday and 3pm it would start snowing/raining (depending on altitude) until around 6.30pm.
Our ‘Cricket Pitch’ base camp.
After wading around acclimatising and scoping out objectives, Reg and I set out for an attempt on 1st of October for the North Spur of Flat Top – it is a long day from basecamp the base of the spur (where we had stashed a tent and gear). On the 2nd of October we set off with 5 days food for the Spur; on the first day we climbed the gully to the west of the spur before angling onto the spur. A lot of the climbing was very time consuming due to the meter of powder snow that was inexplicably stuck to everything less than vertical in angle, which required a climb and trench approach – the harder pitches (up to Scottish VI) were a relief in many ways as not so much digging was required. After the first day, we were pretty happy having ascended the first 600m of the route (from 4500m to 5100m) to a reasonably comfy and safe bivi ledge and it had only snowed lightly that afternoon. Day two was spent climbing the crest of the spur, digging upwards again on technical mixed ground covered in a 1 meter layer of powder snow. We only climbed 4 x 60m pitches in 7 hours, then it started dumping with wet snow. Reg and I were quickly completely soaked – it was like Scotland in winter on a bad day. After attempting to dig into several non ledges and the weather deteriorating further we decided to bail back to previous night’s bivi ledge. By the time we got back to the ledge it had a foot of fresh snow on. On the third day we retreated back to basecamp and it then snowed for two days at basecamp, so we were glad we had retreated.
Day 1 on the Kishtwar Eiger.
On the 7th of October we returned to our high camp planning to make a second attempt on the North Spur, however we received a very poor weather forecast giving ourselves only a one day weather window, so we changed plans for a single push attempt on the easier East Ridge of Flat Top. Setting off at 2am on the 8th of October we made good height gains initially, but our hopes of better snow conditions on a different aspect were dashed as upwards progress slowed. By 8am we were at 5400m but it was obvious that we were not going to make it to the summit and back safely due to the time consuming climbing ahead and the increasing avalanche risk. At 9am we started to descend and by 3pm a fierce storm was underway – thankfully we were on our way back to basecamp by this time.
At the base of the Northern Spur, wading through deep snow.
It snowed again at basecamp for the next 3 days and we decided to change our focus to the Kishtwar Eiger as it was nearer to basecamp and had a south facing gully where the snow conditions might be better than encountered on Flat Top. The Kishtwar Eiger is given 3 different heights on 3 different maps we had 5600m, 5800m and 6000m; we estimated it was around 5800m mark this proved incorrect.
On the 12th of October we started up the south face. The first day was an easy 1000m snow gully with a very short steep section at the top, leading to a pleasant and safe tent site at 5000m. On the 13th we started in the dark, by a wide snow couloir before simul-climbing mixed ground into the main couloir. This was fun to climb, a bit like Taxus then Comb gully then Green gully in Scotland, before we had to start pitching properly. A stiff Scottish V pitch got us into the upper couloir and we came to a bifurcation where we choose to go right. Reg led a serious pitch of thin ice to a hanging belay, and then I led off above that. After trying 3 different ways we realised we had dead-ended and abseiled back to the bifurcation. I led a pitch left before we realised the weather was turning nasty again! A gully is never a good place to be once it starts snowing, especially if the summit snowfield drains into it, so we reluctantly decided to start retreating. We had reached 5700m and we think we had climbed the main difficulties of the route but still had 300m of climbing to make the summit. We abseiled the line of ascent, and as the snowfall increased started to be hit by, bigger and bigger spindrift avalanches scaring us somewhat until we were out of the main gully line. We reached the tent again at 8pm thoroughly spent and descended to basecamp the next day very disappointed not to make the summit.
Although we were disappointed to have experienced so much had weather, we did learn a lot about the area. We will be returning to the North Spur of Flat Top.