Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016 September Kishtwar Peaks Exploratory

The 2016 Kishtwar Peaks Exploratory never made it to Kishtwar (!).  Instead, we trekked a wild route through Zanskar, saw a Himalayan brown bear and other interesting wild life, and traversed several 5000 meter passes while exploring a steep side canyon that involved an icy swim through a small cataract.  A well rounded Himalayan adventure.
Views of the Great Himalaya range on the drive in.

A local in Agsho village, keeping the yard and holding a young of the year goat.

Nav Brah and a local in Agsho.

Donkeys carrying winter fodder to the village from the mountainsides.

Some trailside petroglyphs.

Crossing the Agsho river the easy way.

The view towards Bharnaj and the pass to Kishtwar.

Big sky.

Zanskari ponies, some of which are feral, graze near the river.

Beating a retreat further into Zanskar

The trekking group with a local in Pidmo

Blue sheep

2016 August Hagshu Expedition

Hagshu on the right in marginal weather.  The face you see here is the North face, first climbed in 2014. Our goal was a less heinous objective around the corner to the left, with more manageable slope angles and relatively less overhanging hazard. 

Hagshu Expedition.  Hagshu is a challenging peak in the central Zanskar Himalayas of northern India. It thwarted many attempts by some of the top alpine climbers of the 1980’s, finally falling to a Polish team in 1989, and a consequent successful climb by the British that was an “official IMF expedition”.  A few years ago, top British and Slovenian alpinists made successful ascents of the North and Northeast faces of Hagshu, with one team receiving a “Piolet D’or” for the ascent. 

Working the yak cheese on a sheet of drying plastic at a doksa (place of grazing).
Our plan began 4 years ago. Two of the guests on the climb wanted to climb a first ascent, around 6500 meters in height, and in the Tien Shan of China/Kyrgyzstan.  While I did do my research on the Tien Shan, even buying a few maps and putting together some tentative plans, the place just wasn’t really appealing to me. The Indian Himalaya is wild and off the map, but we do have a rescue plan, and there is definitive medical care in Delhi that is to a standard that I’m comfortable with. While I don’t plan on having to utilize such services, it is always in the back of my mind. I’m guiding, which means not that I’m to get anyone to any far flung summit, but to maximize potential enjoyment without compromising safety. Plus, there is no way I’m leaving the crew I work with. We stay together.

Hence, the 2016 Hagshu Expedition. The group arrived to Leh, and I did the expedition briefing and we did our routine gear checks.  Since we were moving to Kargil the following day, we would only be in Leh for a night.  We were a group of four climbers, with a liaison officer from Kangra, and the guys I work with (Kunsang Thakchod, Gomba Sherpa, Phuntsok Dorje).  We are the core team of Himalaya Alpine Guides. In addition, two guys from Darjeeling came along to help out, Mingma and Mingma Sherpa (the twins). The Mingma twins would assist Gomba in helping to get loads higher onto the mountain, and in fixing ropes while I climbed with the rest of the team.

Our trip to base camp was flawless, with a nice sunny drive to Kargil, a night's stay, and then onward drive to the village of Agsho in Zanskar and then trek up the valley with the village headmen, their yaks shouldering the burden of our climbing equipment and supplies for the several weeks climb.  In base camp, Gomba and the Twins quickly set to the mountain, bringing a load up to Advanced Base Camp, while we acclimatized a day and reviewed some glacier travel skills and fixed rope travel so the little details were fresh in everyone's mind when they came to execute those parts of the climb.
Approaching base camp in the Agsho valley, with Agsho (Hagshu) in the background left.

     The following morning, with heavy loads on our backs, we were off up the glacier and across a medial moraine to reach Advanced Base Camp.  Reaching camp, the skies began to darken as I pointed out the Twins and Gomba further up the glacier having a look round.  The weather was not looking good. Fortunately we had our Mountain Hardwear Trango tents, a large supply of fuel, and food to ride out the weather. We watched the night come as the rain and snow flew. Our location was on rocks on a flattish bit of medial moraine far from any avalanche run outs.  The snow continued as we brewed up hot drinks, soup, and then dinner.  I stepped out of my tent to talk with the other members of the group several times, with Gomba and the Mingmas back from the foray into route finding for the day. The route, to them, did not appear in condition.

      I moved to the other tent to speak with the other climbers. We discussed the weather and the route. Gomba Sherpa made some photographs of the upper route and had returned to camp earlier that day with them.  The route appeared possible, but not in the best condition for an ascent and we had rockfall and avalanches going on. We knew we needed perfect weather for the route.

We decided to call off the climb and shifted a few ranges to the East. The Changtang plateau holds so many places to explore. We completed the final week of the expedition climbing a lesser peak in alpine style.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

2016 September Stok Range Alpine Climbing

Will Porteous on the summit of Shuku Kangri. We were the only team on this peak.
The Stok range is the prominent skyline of peaks seen from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The Stok range is most often visited for a climb of the popular trekking peak, Stok Kangri.  The focus of this trip was to seek out new climbing objectives on adjacent peaks and on North facing slopes.  The north facing slopes of this range hold stationary ice bodies and glaciers and do present some degree of climbing challenge, and at the 5500m+ elevation.
      From 25 September - 8 October 2016, we made our way into Stok Kangri base camp via Shang Sumdo and the Matho valley.  There are a lot of tour companies offering climbs of the standard route on Stok Kangri. It is possible to come to Leh and organize a climb of Stok Kangri for about US$400. You go into base camp, sleeping in pre-established camps, and walk up the route with a local boy, under good conditions. This trip has nothing to do with this experience. Our goal was to do alpine climbs of more aesthetic routes, including learning to climb on ice with crampons, and covering other skills for moving in technical rock and ice terrain in the mountains, with a western mountain guide teaching these skills (Luke Smithwick).
Blue sheep cross a glacial stream on approach to base camp.
     Our first day of training for these skills was in Matho Phu, where we covered ascending and descending a fixed rope in steep rock terrain, moving together in alpine style on a rope, basic knots for mountaineering, objective hazards in mountaineering, communications while traveling as a rope team, and how to transition into multi-pitch rappels from upward progress.  Each of our trips is catered to the participants involved. Mahesh wanted to trek and try climbing, Amit wanted to learn to mountain skills, and Will wanted to climb new routes and summit 6000 meter peaks. More images of the trip below. We will return to the Stok range in July 2017. Interested? Contact Luke

Himalaya Alpine Guide Luke Smithwick putting up the rope to belay guests during the ascent of Golep Kangri in alpine style.

Will Porteous on the summit of Stok Kangri.

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The team making their first multi-pitch alpine rock climb. Two of these climbers had never been rock climbing before.

Views on 5000 meter Matho La.

Looking into Matho valley from the top of Matho La.

Amit with Stocky the dog while hiking Stok Kangri.

Mahesh on trek.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

2016 Kharut Pyramid Expedition

11:04 AM | 29 August 2016 | Chopdem, Goa, India | altitude:17m

Monday morning. I've a few more days of recovering in the thick air and ocean breeze before flying back into the Himalayas for two more expeditions this season, one in Zanskar, and one in the Stok region of central Ladakh.  In July of this year, we organized an expedition for two guests to go for a trek to K2 base camp (Concordia), and then an attempt on Kharut Pyramid, a peak adjacent to mighty to K2 that is 6444 meters in height. They had a nice trek, some great mountain views, yet when they went for a climb on the mountain, they had bad weather and weren't able to climb above the glacier. One of the guests, Bjorn Eriksen, shared some nice photos from the trip, they are below. -Luke Smithwick, guide/founder, Himalaya Alpine Guides

Concordia (K2 base camp) and Mitre Peak.

K2 base camp trekker
Eriksen at K2 base camp.

K2 base camp
K2 Base Camp

K2 // Chogo Ri // Mt. Godwin Austen

Kharut Pyramid
Kharut Pyramid.

Our next post will be a detailed account of the Hagshu expedition of August 2016. Interested in a trek or climb in the Himalayas? Send us a note.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Zanskar Alpine Rock Climbing - July 2016

11:48 AM | 25 August 2016 | Chopdem, Goa, India | altitude:17m

A recap. I'm resting (Luke) and doing preparations for our next Zanskar expedition in two weeks, having just completed two Zanskar expeditions for July and August. July was one guest, a bit of a change of plans, with one guest from our Kharut Pyramid expedition coming over to India, and two others going for Kharut Pyramid next to K2. Our plan for the July Zanskar alpine climbing expedition was simple and multi-fold. The guest wanted to gain skills in multi-pitch rock climbing, while also learning about alpine climbing. Zanskar is the perfect arena for this.

Itinerary -
1 - arrive Leh - 3 July 2016
We spent the first day exploring Leh town, and acclimatizing to the new altitude of 3500 meters. I did a trip briefing with the guest, and then we did a gear check utilizing our gear list to ensure they had all the proper equipment for the expedition.

The following day, we got out early on Enfield Bullet motorcycles to a local crag, and the climbing began. The goal of the first day was to introduce new concepts, language, and methodology of multi-pitch rock climbing.  Our day plan was to climb a four pitch route that I'd climbed previously (and placed rappel/abseil anchors), discussing different concepts on terrain that was comfortable for the guest. Some images from the day. We completed the climb in 3 hours and were back to Leh for breakfast at 9:30 am. We brought light snacks and had a coffee to start the day. A pleasant experience, we now had the afternoon to explore Leh and the Indus valley.

Day 2 complete, we had covered:
-tying in with a figure eight follow through
-securing to the anchor with a locking carabiner and clove hitch
-restacking the rope for the leader for the next pitch
-cleaning cams and nuts from placements
-managing loose rock
-flaking out the rope for the leader
-anchoring the belayer
-communications for climbing - on belay, climbing, off belay, slack, tension, watch me, rock, ice, clipping
-alpine anchors
-three point equalized anchors
-rope types and applications - double ropes, single ropes, static/dynamic, alpine, crag, sport, traditional
-types of protection - cams, nuts/stoppers, wired hexcentrics, pitons, ball nuts, ice screws, natural, protection, slings, runners
-types of belays - terrain, anchors
-personal protective equipment - helmet, harness, shoes (approach, rock), gloves, hardware
-belaying the leader
-belaying a follower

Moderate multi-pitch granite climbing. Great fun!

The Khardung La is India's highest motorable road at 5300 meters.The following day, we drove to the top in a private jeep.

On the pass, we discussed pacing and moving at altitude, the rest step, and hydrating and eating while alpine climbing. It was a pleasant afternoon, with views of the Karakoram range to the North. Images of the afternoon below:

Short roping on the "Batameez ridge". Training for climbing higher in alpine style.
Route finding in new terrain.

Most of these concepts were a review for the guest, but you do not make assumptions when you are heading to climb first ascents in the Himalayas.
Over the following two days, we drove overland down the Indus river, stopped overnight in Kargil, and arrived to the Zanskari village of Agsho.  Some images of the road trip below:

On the road with the crew the jeep fully loaded.

Views of the mountains from on the road

The large Maitreya buddha carving at Mulbekh.

Reaching the village of Agsho on the evening of the 4th of July, we set up camp, got in touch with locals, and then went for a day of rock climbing before heading up the Agsho river to our base camp for the expedition. Images of that period of time below.

Wildflowers next to a field in Agsho.
Loading the yaks in Agho to head up the valley.

Heading up the valley with the first views of the craggy peaks of the valley (!).

Locals unload from the regional bus as we head out of town.

Rigzin looking back as he leads the yaks further.

Agsho village and the team.

Family in Agsho, all smiles.

Kunsang and Gomba with a yak friend.

A local lady heading home from a doksa (summer grazing settlement)

First views of the Bharnaj peaks (!).

Yaks can swim (!)
Ice climbing on a weather day. With a background in rock climbing, the guest picked up the skills quickly with some introductions and instruction.

The wildflowers peak in mid July in Zanskar.

Climbing at our first nights camp, a multi-pitch route.

The first nights camp at the base of the Agsho glacier.

Reaching base camp, we enjoyed eight more days of climbing. We covered the following morphology and skills, and continued to hone the ones we had started earlier in the trip:

top rope setting
climbing movement -
hands -  crimp, sloper, side pull, pinch, gaston, undercling, finger lock, hand jam, fist jam
feet - edging, smearing, jamming
glacier morphology - moulin, ablation zone, accumulation zone, ice fall, serac, dry glacier, wet glacier, tidewater, cirque, hanging, valley, moraine, erratic, terminal moraine, nose, snout, plastic flow properties
ice climbing - swinging and placing an ice tool, foot work, parts of the crampon / ice tool and their use, ice anchors, ice screw placement, abalakov v thread
belaying an ice leader/follower

Photos of those days:
Relaxing in base camp.


Building anchors.


Gomba Sherpa with an attentive belay while Luke Smithwick leads.

Our guest making their first traditional climbing lead (!)


THE END. Next, the story of Hagshu and the story of an alpine first ascent in the Changtang - August 2016. We will have an alpine skills course next summer in Zanskar, where we will cover similar skills and do some more first ascents. Stay tuned (!). -Luke Smithwick, guide, Himalaya Alpine Guides

The guest's feedback:
"You provide truly authentic, very well balanced trips, where nothing is missing and nothing unnecessary is added on top. You all are open, sincere, deeply passionate about mountains, knowledgeable, honest and friendly. You all are genuinely attentive to client's needs and above all I feel at home in the mountains with your company and part of the team.
I liked the style, flexibility, "lightness" and energy, choice of the destination, constant adaptation of the schedule. I had a feeling of "living" in the mountains from the first day, rather than ticking off prepaid itineraries to accomplish the next ambition. I actually learned and grew as a climber..."

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