Explorers Connect

Jason Bailey's First Ascent of Skilma Kangri, Zanskar

Trip ReportJames Hipkiss

Why do grand ideas always start life over a pint in your local? Sitting in Bristol's fabulous Port of Call on a cold and damp February evening, we got talking: How about an unclimbed peak? It's within our scope and we could do it this year? Fast-forward to September and we're at the Virgin Atlantic check-in, arguing with the staff over our less than generous baggage allowance. We had seven months to prepare. To be successful you need to plan, prepare and practice. We achieved most of our plans but naturally there were some tasks we left to the last minute and suffered because of it. This is our story of a small team with big ideas, how we prepared, struggled and learnt from our experiences.

The team consisted of Al Boardman and Elliott Forge who had previous first-ascent experience on a trip to the Pamirs, whilst Jane Cooper and I have been leading climbing and walking trips around the world for the past 10 years including trips to Spain, Namibia, Nepal, Borneo and Patagonia. After much discussion we settled on a remote corner of the Indian Himalaya, Zanskar. Al knew the area having filmed 'Special Delivery' there in 2007, which was shown at the Kendal Film Festival. We were put in touch with local guides who helped us accurately budget for the 17-day expedition, which included horses, cook, assistants, travel and accommodation costs. We also had a contingency fund; ours was almost all spent before we even left Heathrow on a small-print/weight-allowance fiasco. We took a satellite phone as part of our emergency kit, which was so useful.

We also used radios between us, there is only so much you can discuss with a rope pull. Radios can fail but until they do they?re great.? They worked perfectly well even without a line of sight over a 2km. I run adventure races and mountain marathons and they simply do not compare to the gradual decline in fitness you experience at altitude. Simply reaching base camp after 12 days of travel and acclimatisation was exhausting and this was before we climbed anything. I don?t think you can ever be fit enough for an expedition. Our practice sessions involved climbing on long easy routes, like Commando Ridge at Bosigran, allowing ideas to be discussed and big boot climbing to be admired.

We also practiced rescue techniques, which were less than successful first time round. There are no decent commercially available maps of Zanskar so we had to use Google Earth. You can copy the images over to Google map and transfer these to contour maps. Having as much information to hand still led to the locals arguing about the location of base camp. The Expedition Our walk-in began from a small village a few hours drive from Padum, where we met our 10 horses, cook, assistant and a plethora of locals wanting to know why we were walking into their valley. After 2 days we reached base camp at the end of the Reru East valley, known locally as Katkar On our first day?s recce, up the SE hanging valley, we found our original planned base camp. This, we realised, would prove too difficult for our horses due to the steep rocky approach?

Apparently yaks would have coped. We climbed to 5,000m and discovered the surrounding peaks would require 1-2 camps beyond an ABC. Unfortunately we only had one spare tent and not enough time. Another ABC was ruled out on the Southern glacier as falling rock and collapsing ice marred the approach. Eventually we settled on another hanging valley, NE of our basecamp. We established an ABC at 5,200m with three unclimbed peaks at its head. The following day we broke trail through deep snow and covered barely 1km in 2.5hrs. Concerns were aired about timings and day 18 saw us at a low. I began to realise how difficult it was finding a new mountain let alone the route. After another day of photos and route planning we decided to tackle the middle of the three peaks. So, at 2.30am, with head torches shining, we set off retracing our previous tracks. ?It only took 1hr to cover the first kilometre but then 4hrs to cover the next 1.5km, through deep powder any skier would envy.? At the bottom of our intended route a fine avalanche drifted past behind us, obliterating our path. Had it been 10 minutes before we would have been in the Bergshrund. We had chosen to ascend via the right hand shoulder but found only brittle granite.

The shallow gulley, we?d hoped for, didn?t appear so we were faced with a 400m 70 degree North face (D+). We had to deal with a mixture of vertical ice, deep powder and compacted snow, sharing the lead and finally topping out after 4hrs on our toes; calves on fire and the tedium of counting paces to break the endurance finally over. We ascended the western ridge, compact snow and brittle granite, to gain the summit, 5979m at 1pm. A call to base camp to let them know we?d made it was followed by retracing our steps down the ridge to pick up some gear we had off-loaded and then down-climb the face. There was no other possible descent making this section the most nerving aspect, as we were all thoroughly exhausted. The walk out was slow and we finally arrived at ABC after 14 hours. After much discussion we decided to call this peak Skilma Kangri.

The locals translated this as the central snowy mountain. Al and Elliott descended to base camp and Jane came up to ABC. The following day Jane and I scrambled up the South facing snow slopes to summit another peak at 5800m (F), Mt Jules.? The views were stunning; all the more in the knowledge that no other team had climbed in this area before. What surprised me most was the mental and emotional exhaustion, it was so unexpected. We all struggled at different stages but as a team we were always supportive of one another. I came to realise that this trip wasn?t just about making a first ascent; it was about so much more.

Jason has climbed extensively over the last 10 years. He holds the MIA and, with Jane, runs www.peakaspect.co.uk, a Bristol based company specialising in bespoke climbing courses. With thanks to Rab, Marmot, Campbell Irvine, Richard Growling and Helen Anderson.