Climbing the Zanskar Mountains of Northen India Christian Wilson October 11, 2016 Bushwalk & Camp, Central, Climb, Snow Sports, Travel Mt Kun (7077m) is part of a massif known as Nun Kun, in the Zanskar Mountains of Northen India. Nun and Kun are both just over 7000m high and stand out as some of the highest peaks in the region, not far from the Pakistan border. In 2013 I climbed Kang Yatze 2, 6200m in nearby Ladakh. I made it to 6140m due to rather tough snow conditions on the day. My Nepali guide on KY2, Nima Sherpa, had shown me some pictures on his mobile phone of Kun. It gave me the idea of addressing a dream held since climbing Island Peak, Nepal in 2010. The dream of climbing a 7000er. So there I was, arriving in hot monsoonal Delhi in July 2015. 8 months of preparation, hard sustained training, and organizing an expedition company to do the logistics. I was joined by a group of 3 friends, Ken, Lilian and Vipul, who also wanted to climb a 7000m peak. I was the only one in the group to have climbed to 6000m before, but they were younger and most likely fitter than me. So I had confidence that they could do it if they set their minds to it, and also followed the rules of high altitude climbing. The IMF in Delhi, L-R Ken, Chris, Lilian Nepal had a massive earthquake in April 2015, and due to this I decided to raise funds for the Australian Himalayan Foundation’s Nepal Earthquake Appeal, by having people sponsor our Mt Kun climb. We raised $2174, which although not stellar, was well received by the AHF and the many Nepali people we met in the mountains. We were given an AHF flag to fly from the summit as PR for them. Now it felt like a real expedition! During the few hot sweaty days in Delhi , we registered at the rather formidable IMF, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, and meeting our cheerful Indian expedition organizers. IMF required an appointed Trip Leader, which ended up being me…(what a surprise!) This meant the IMF would expect me to be responsible for all decisions made on behalf of the team. Hmmm. Better behave myself up there? A few days later, the spectacular flight to Leh over the Himalaya gave me a clear view of Nun Kun off to the west. My first thought was “Wow! they look big”. Nun Kun seen from the spectacular flight to Leh Arriving in Leh , at 3200m, meant we had to spend a number of days getting used to the high altitude. A few days after that, we began our acclimatisation trek. Our Indian support team included an appointed Liaison Officer (LO), Namgyal our fearless guide, two Everest summitteers , the Mingma twin brothers, and some friendly kitchen crew and other entourage. The trek took us over the Matho La , a 4900m pass near the popular peak of Stok Kangri. The colourful culture of Leh The days were hot, but the pass was sublime. Matho La was a peaceful wild place. We acclimatized well, taking it slow and steady. Climbing at altitude with fully loaded packs was hard, but my main issue was the heat in the Ladakh valleys in early afternoon. In midsummer it was far from pleasant. After one extra day in Leh, the tortured, twisty road trip on NH1 via Lamayuru and Kargil in Zanskar began. Kargil felt like a very ‘frontier’ place. Very close to Pakistan, but despite its proximity to the border, it never felt threatening. The colourful culture of Leh We entered the very scenic Suru Valley which became our campsite for the night. Nun and Kun loomed at the end of the valley. They looked high. And rather daunting. Could we imagine ourselves up there? Kun (left) Nun (right) seen from the Suru Valley The next day saw us arrive at Shafat. Where we began venturing up the pretty Shafat Valley towards Shafat Glacier via icy moraines, flower filled grassy valleys and treacherous mud slopes brought us to Kun Base Camp (KBC) at 4300m. Yoga in the beautiful Shafat Valley On the way we saw fresh snow leopard prints on our trail! I will be returning soon to try and see these big mountain cats! Snow Leopard Prints! The rugged glacier moraine trail proved too much for our pony brigade, which had to return to Rangdum. Our gear ended up being transported by porters Crossing the Shafat Glacier moraine Base camp was our home for a few days as we acclimatized again. Nun loomed off up the valley. A 6000m peak called Z1 (Zanskar 1) was constantly dropping avalanches down it’s steep slopes. They were not a danger to us, but Z1 looked like a nasty piece of work. Not a side I could see looked like a safe climb. Ken was not feeling well, so we stayed an extra day to allow him some recovery time, not wanting to split the group so early. We then spent an afternoon load ferrying extra gear to a midway “gear stash” point at 4700m in preparation for the climb to Camp 1 at 5300m. Doing a load ferry The extra rest day paid off, and Ken was with us for the rest of the climb. It was a long haul to Camp 1, via the gear stash where we swapped our hiking boots for the double boots needed for the cold high altitude conditions. Camp 1 was spectacular. So was the weather the following day. A killer blue sky. So blue we spent much of the day hiding from it in the tents, the UV was so intense. We did have a short walk up toward the mountain but mostly lay around telling jokes and listening to music. Camp1 on Kun During the day the Sherpas began fixing the route up the ice wall above us. All the time the crack and rumble of avalanches around us reminded us not to take the mountains too lightly. We couldn’t explore much either, due to the amount of hidden crevasse danger. I called it our ice prison. But the following day it was time to move to Camp 2. Ropes were fixed by the Sherpas, but one new section had changed route from the day before. This was lucky, as during our approach a cascade of snow and rock came suddenly over the cliff near that spot. Had we been in the original trail blazed by the Sherpas we may have been in the line of the avalanche. Our new route avoided the danger. We had dodged a bullet for sure! It was tough going, using jumars and fixed ropes, with loaded packs, soft snow and a 70 degree slope. This was the famed Kun ice wall, about 800m of pure UP! The Kun Ice Wall I questioned my sanity sometimes. But then I would look around, and marvel at where we were. It was nothing short of spectacular. Camp 1 was a tiny black speck. The Himalayas are truly huge. Today’s climbing was considered to be the hardest part of the entire mountain. But on this part, the snow conditions got worse. Mushy gelato. With the odd crevasse hole for good luck. I would pull up on the jumar in the slushy goo, saying under my breath, “Yes You Can” . Then pause , maybe for even a few minutes, then try again. I noted the darkening skies to the northeast. Storms. Great! Far away though but heading our way slowly, I knew I could make the top before worrying about those. Camp 1 is a small speck way below us At around 3pm the glacial plateau appeared. And there was Nun to the left, and Kun to the right. At 6100m it was an amazing place. Just like in the pictures I had seen! Surreal. A high world, a 4 km plateau of snow and ice, with the two 7000 m peaks standing sentinel, one at each end. Camp 2 and Nun behind That afternoon, rumbling, dark skies and fast growing cumulus clouds piled up all around the mountain. Luckily the storms seemed to just hover around the mountain, not reaching us. Next day, off we marched to Camp 3 under bluebird skies. Promoting our fundraiser for AHF with Kun behind But the heat was getting to me, as well as the soft snow. It might have been ice, but felt like a frypan. It took about 3 hours to walk that short distance of 2.5 km at the altitude of 6200m. Approaching Kun Camp 3 At Camp 3, we rested in preparation for the summit push that evening. The weather was turning foul again, and more storms were forming. We could see lightning coming out of the clouds below us, we were so high. Storms forming over Nun Sherpas dwarfed by Kun’s summit ridge At 10pm we prepared for the summit climb. Suddenly a cry came from Lilian’s tent. She had dislocated her shoulder. This was a pre-existing condition, but she had controlled it to this point. Ken came to her aid and taped it up but we lost an hour, now leaving at 11pm. Off into the darkness we climbed. To the east a storm flashed ominously. The slope steepened, and soon we got on fixed ropes with jumars again. A bergschrund was crossed, and the slope became almost vertical. I knew it wasn’t endless, but it felt so. I was now above any height I had previously climbed, and I was gasping at every upward step. But I had no altitude problems at all. No headache or dizziness…it was just bloody hard! Above 6547m a small valley on the ridge was reached. I could see Ken and Lilian and the Sherpas ahead on another slope above. Something was wrong, as they were not progressing. I stopped to eat a snack bar which had frozen solid. My water bladder has also frozen now but I had my bottle as well. It was so cold, I had to quickly swap gloves, hats, mittens etc for my heavy duty ones. This felt like frostbite territory. On Nun a few years earlier , people had lost fingers, toes and noses to it here, so this was a reality I had to address, and fast! Vipul caught up to me and we were told to wait there by the Sherpas. Then came the bad news. The wind was too strong above us to continue safely. We had to return to Camp 3! Our highest point I took some selfies with Vipul, and a picture of my GPS reading. We were at 6600m, at 3am. It was uneventful coming down, and abseiling in the dark didn’t worry me. Hard work, but easier than going up! At Camp 3, half an hour after arriving, the light of dawn began, albeit in whiteout conditions. Our guide, Namgyal invited us to have a second attempt the following evening. Lilian had been helped by the two Mingma brothers up the slope, with only one working arm! She had done well. Ken had coughed badly during his climb up. He did well too. But could we do all this again? Storms across the high camp And the weather was foul. The peaks had clouds screaming off them. I was the official leader. My decisions were all accountable to the IMF. I couldn’t feel comfortable sending the group back up given the circumstances. We had made it to within 877m distance and 477m elevation from our goal. We had all climbed higher than ever before. But if something went wrong, I had two people with a bad physical conditions to consider, a climb of at least 12 hours to complete, and weather that didn’t look to be improving any time soon. And I wanted this summit, but the desire to return safely was stronger. To push our luck and fail could have dire results. I had to trust my instincts. After much debate and soul searching, everyone agreed that we would go to back to Base Camp. And it was a long day. Terribly soft snow, hard abseils over newly opened crevasses and overall exhaustion. We had gone with almost no sleep for 36 hours. The second abseil on the ice wall was blessed with better snow than the first section. Base camp seemed like an oasis. Green, with, flowers and birds. And real food to eat! Up high, our food had been basic and rather tasteless. All water had to be melted from snow. Not a place to stick around. Another day had to be spent while we waited for porters to arrive from Rangdum. A nice way to welcome the group back was the yummy ‘summit cake’ thoughtfully decorated with our fundraiser name on it 🙂 The walk out from KBC was sublime. Carpets of flowers with amazing alpine scenery made the walk a wonderful compensation for returning home empty handed. At our flower valley, the Mingma brothers showed us how to catch fish by hand from the streams. It was amazing to watch, and to try, and that night back at Shafat, the fish (and a cold beer) proved to be a great way to end our climb! Catching fish by hand A yummy fish! Despite the cliché, the journey really is more important than the destination. Summits are a great goal to have, but getting to them is the real adventure, even if that moment of glory is not possible. And getting home alive is even more important. I am truly humbled by these mountains, but I will be back again soon! Editors Note: We would like to thank Christian for reaching out and sharing his journey to the Zanskar Mountains of Northen India with you. If you would like to share your trip please feel free to make contact and you may also be featured. 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