India – An Adventure in the remote Zanskar Range

It was day 25 of the expedition, and we had decided to hike up the steep and exposed slope above basecamp to get some views of peaks on the other side of the valley.  We had hiked about 1000 feet over scree, loose rock bands and some fourth class grassy terrain.  Our heads were down and we were focused on our footing and talking about something or other. Suddenly and seemingly out of no where, a huge brown bear leapt out of its cave and began to charge us.  In an instance, I saw huge white teeth on a massive predator standing on its hind legs. It growled like nothing I had ever heard before and I responded by screaming bloody murder.  Adrenaline was pumping through my body and I attempted to run down the slope while simultaneously grabbing Anna. Lisa held her ground and yelled at the animal. Seconds later the bear ran off in the other direction.

We caught our breath and quickly began scrambling back to basecamp.  Back at basecamp, we started laughing; not necessarily because it was funny but because it was so unexpected and scary and sometimes the best way to cope is to laugh.

View of the Dalung Valley
View of the Dalung Valley

In late August of 2015, Anna Pfaff, Lisa VanSciver and I traveled to the Zanskar Range in India’s Kashmir region. With only a couple photos of peaks in the area from various articles, our knowledge of its climbing potential was limited. Accurate maps were non-existent and Google Earth imagery was poor. So while we came prepared for a variety of different climbing mediums and strategies, we were certain of only one expectation: this would be an unparalleled adventure.

After initially meeting in New Delhi, we traveled by plane to the mid-sized city of Leh in the state of Ladakh.  Leh is a touristy city of about 28,000 people situation at about 11,000 feet at the foothills of the Himalaya.  It is mix a cultures that appear to seemingly co-exist and Buddhist prayer flags hang in the streets next to the Muslim Mosques.   From Leh, we traveled by bus for two days through dirt roads and small Muslim and Buddhist villages to the Suru Valley in the Zanskar Range. Historically, this region of India has been overwhelmed with conflict and strife related to the ongoing Indian-Pakistani border disputes and has thus seen very little Western climbing activity. Despite its war-torn history, the people are generous and welcoming and the villages appear rather high functioning.

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Acclimatizing and hanging out on top of one of the temples in Leh – photo Anna Pfaff
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Buddhist tradition is vibrant and strong in Leh
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View of a Muslim mosque in Leh
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View of one of the new Buddhist temples in Leh built by the Japanese in 1991 – photo Anna Pfaff
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Shopping for food in Leh

The large Suru Valley runs north to south and is home to the infamous Shafat Fortress, a massive granite big-wall the dominates the roadside Zanskar Range . Our goal was to explore the Dalung Valley, the first valley west of the Suru River when traveling south from the village of Ringdom. Over the next few days, with the help of 12 horses and horsemen, we established a base camp about two miles up the Dalung valley at approximately 4250 meters after crossing the braided but relatively slow moving Suru River.

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Our Chariot!
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View of the Lamayuru Monastery on day 1 of the drive – photo Lisa Van Sciver
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The Gompa that marks the start of the Buddhist influence along the road to Zanskar
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Crossing the Suru River

From there, we did several reconnaissance missions up and down the valley in search of a suitable objective. We found many inspiring, unclimbed and remote peaks, coupled with rugged approaches and a lot of loose rock. We settled on trying to climb a large massif that divided the Dalung from the southern Chilung Valley. In early September, after  the three of us were somewhat healthy after getting over upper respiratory infections, we crossed the Dalung River and ascended steep grassy slopes and established a high camp at the base of our intended objective at 4,800 meters.

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Checking out the upper valley
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Our intended objective, Taare Pabart. We ascended the left headwall to the left ridge of the peak.

 

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Making dinner at high camp – photo Anna Pfaff

On September 5, we left our high camp at about 4:00 A. M and began to approach the east ridge of what we began calling Taare Parbat (Star Peak in Hindi), as it looked like a point on a star. It was pitch black and our vision was only illuminated by the lights from the stars and our headlamps. Suddenly, we heard a very loud cracking sound. Our nerves were already heightened and I immediately thought the cracking sound was gunfire. My heart rate dramatically increased and we quickly ducked under the rocks thinking that the end was near. Realizing that it was only the sound of the ice cracking, we giggled sheepishly as we continued up the talus slope before roping up for the initial headwall leading to the East Ridge.

Anna leading 1si pitch (photo Rachel)
Anna leading up one of the first pitches on the headwall

The climbing on the headwall was primarily characterized by excellent water ice and mixed conditions. Once we reached the prominent ridge, the rock quality greatly deteriorated and we took great care to climb this 200-meter section of loose and unattached slabs. After ascending the slabs, we unroped and made our way through third and fourth class death blocks. The final pitch consisted of ascending mixed-terrain and some alpine ice to the summit ridge. From our high point, we could see views of the impressive and always-humbling Himalaya.

Climbing ice on the headwall
Lisa starting up the slabs – photo by Anna Pfaff
Continuing up the slabs
Navigating the loose upper ridge – photo Lisa Van Sciver

We ascended approximately 600 meters of new terrain to about 30 meters below the Northeast summit at 5,600 meters. We left one rappel anchor on the summit pyramid and then found a third/fourth class walk off down the east face of the massif that eventually brought us to a snowfield adjacent to our camp and looped us around back to our high camp. We did the route in a 15-hour push from our high camp and did not place any bolts. We named our route Unattached (5.6 M4 WI3 AI4, 600 m) in reference to the large amount of loose rocks and generally feeling unattached to anyone and anything in this remote corner of the globe.

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Summit Photo

There was no evidence of climbing anywhere on the route or the summit. Furthermore, we didn’t see a single other person in the Dalung Valley throughout the duration of our trip. As far as we know, there has been no other climbing activity in that particular valley.

The overall experience was quite memorable on so many different levels. For climbers, searching for adventure and exploration, the Zanskar offers up some intensely unique and magical experiences. From rugged alpine climbing, hitchhiking with the Indian Army, hanging out with the Monks, drinking tea with the locals and even that time we were charged by an angry brown bear, this was a trip that wont soon be forgotten.

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Thanks to these guys for helping to make dreams come true!

This trip could not have been possible without the support of the American Alpine Club via the McNeill-Nott and Copp-Dash grants. We found it especially inspiring to be climbing in the same region as Copp and Dash did in 2007 when they established their ground-breaking first ascent of the Shafat Fortress. The locals still remember both Copp and Dash and told us stories about their charismatic personalities. I also would like to thank the folks at Goal Zero, Julbo, Maxim Ropes, Patagonia, Petzl, Picky Bars and La Sportive for hooking us up with the best gear out there. And thanks to Rucksack Tours for organizing our logistics.

Check out this short little film  I made about our trip!

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