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Climbing a New Mountain: The Vishnu Fortress expedition – May 2016 by Martin Moran
As name on a map Peak 5968 doesn’t stimulate the romantic juices. I spotted it on an old Survey of India map, the highest point of a cluster of ridges on the southern fringe of Garhwal Himalaya. The range is called Vishnu Ghar Dhar – the ridge of Vishnu’s abode – and I had previously admired it from a distance. The peaks may not top the magic 6000m barrier but they looked complex, serrated and heavily glaciated. Only one of them was known to have been climbed. Peak 5968m was almost certainly virgin. Ascents at sub-6000m altitude are possible on a three-week time budget – a definite plus to those with working lives.
Instinct told me to go in early spring when extensive winter snow cover would ease the approaches. The north flanks drop into broken icefalls, so we would go in from the south. I could find no records of anyone ever exploring these southern glaciers, yet they are some of the most accessible in the Indian Himalaya.
Promoting a journey of discovery with an outcome unknown may seem a difficult pitch. Yet we soon had 10 members signed up with Adele Pennington, Francis Blunt and me as guides. Numbers were swelled by addition of five Indian staff, and I reckoned we’d need 40 porters to get us all to a base camp on the Gimme Glacier. We could hardly arrive unnoticed with such an entourage.
We journeyed from Delhi by train to Haridwar and then by minibus up the Alaknanda valley, the resurgence of springtime signalled by the purple blossom of countless jacaranda trees on the roadsides. Turning off the highway 15km before Joshimath we entered a peaceful world of pastoral harmony at Urgam. Fields of ripe wheat were arrayed across wide slopes between 2000 and 2400m altitude guarded by huge horse chestnut trees.
The low starting altitude imposed a big ascent on day one of the trek. We tramped 1500 metres uphill to emerge from the forest on the ridge of Bansi Narayan. Our campground was besieged by rhododendron in full flower. The afternoon clouds cleared to reveal the vast depths of the Joshimath valley and the great peaks beyond – Dunagiri, Nanda Devi, Trisul et al. A small temple lies in a hollow by a fresh-water spring. Paradise didn’t last long. Within two hours of arrival we faced a porter strike and worked till the Sonal Kund. We were now on the dissected flanks of a ridge called Acchari Dhar and needed to traverse several kilometres to reach a shoulder where we could turn into the Gimme Glacier valley. There were many local folk from Urgam on the slopes, all searching for the lucrative insect fungus keeda jadi, which grows out of dead caterpillars under the snows and is revealed in spring. Keeda jadi is a powerful steroid. A single sprig is worth Rs 250, a kilo can fetch Rs 40,000 (£500) in the Chinese medicine market – that’s a lifetime fortune to a Garhwal villager. No wonder few locals wanted to carry loads for us, despite upping our daily pay rate offer to Rs 1,000. Instead, we had a bunch of inexperienced and youthful porters from another valley who didn’t know the way and struggled to manage 20kg loads.
The traverse of Acchari Dhar provided us and them with an epic. Two hours were spent lost among crags and rhododendron jungle before we all located the correct traverse-line. By this time storm-clouds were brewing. We passed only one cramped stopping point, but, buoyed by advice that we could cross the shoulder in a couple of hours, we pushed on. This was a big mistake. After hours of wetting drizzle a vicious thunderstorm with snow-squalls broke at 4pm, stranding the party across vertiginous slopes. The porters’ clothing was woefully inadequate.
Suddenly, we had a crisis. I told those nearest to dump loads and head back to Sonal Kund. They didn’t need telling! A mass retreat ensued. We scoured loads to find tents and some sleeping bags for ourselves. An exposed ridge offered the only possible camping spot, and tents were hurriedly erected on exiguous perches. Some members spent the night without sleeping bags. The last porters got back to Sonal Kund camp at 11pm. Understandably, the majority of them deserted our cause next morning and went back to Urgam.
We woke to fine weather but faced a desperate situation. Some 500kg of our kit and food was strung out across Acchari Dhar in random dumps. Over the next three days and through further thunderstorms we worked like Trojans to rectify the situation. Four young porters stayed on to help us and a few locals were persuaded to join them. Adele led an advance party over the shoulder, 600m down into the Gimme valley and 300m back up to find a base camp site under the glacier snout. Francis and I ferried about 250kg of kit across the shoulder ourselves. Eventually, all our members and most importantly, our cook Naveen, were installed at base. Despite the debacle, nearly every item of equipment arrived at base camp over the following week.
After this, things could only get better! Base camp was a beautiful boulder-studded meadows fed by vigorous freshwater streams from the melting snows. The Gimme Glacier curved up into an impressive icefall and at its head lay a 5300m col. From our scrutiny of Google Earth satellite photos we knew that we had to cross the col to reach our goal – the elusive Peak 5968m. Francis and Adele reconnoitred the icefall. Opinions were divided on the safety of the planned passage up its left-hand side.
Meanwhile I took two members, Simon and Steve, on a “training” climb up a huge snow couloir to gain the bounding ridge of the valley at 5100m. We were repulsed the last metres of our objective, a fine rock tower, but were rewarded by inspiring views of pristine glaciers and rock peaks. The prevailing geology was of solid corrugated gneiss. This was a super-alpine paradise. Our spirits were quickly crushed by three hours of oven-baked torture while we descended the gully in full glare of the midday sun, but at least we now had some reliable weather.
While good weather lasted it was essential to make a decisive bid to find and climb Peak 5968m. Our high-altitude porters, Heera and Mangal, were summoned to our advance camp. Adele and her strike-force of Nigel and Martin together with Francis and I got up at midnight and made a decisive climb through the icefall to emerge in a shadowed glacier bowl at 5200m. While the others set camp Francis and I forged onwards for another kilometre to reach the col at 5360m. A blindingly beautiful view broke forth. There across the gulf of the Panpatia valley lay the bulwarks of Parvati Parabat and 6596m Nilkanth. Most importantly, the sunlight crown of Peak 5968m rose up to our left. We’d need to descend a hundred metres before we could commence her summit climb, and for sure this was a climb to be done at night, but the route was undoubtedly feasible with a margin of safety. I shrieked with delight, and Francis muttered his approval.
While Adele and team settled in to the 5200m camp we hurried back to advance camp to report the good news. As is inevitable, not all members were fit enough or sufficiently fired with enthusiasm to make the attempt, but we mustered five more members in addition to Martin and Nigel. Heera and Mangal joined us and next morning we nine moved up to join Adele.
A happy day was spent dozing, brewing and feeding in our tents. When the sun went down we settled to four hours’ repose and got up at 10.30pm to start the summit bid. Francis forged ahead with youngsters, David and Phil and stalwart Raymond who had only just recovered from fever. The descent from the col was the psychological threshold. Now we were committed. The night hours passed in a serpentine ascent of the glacier, weaving round huge crevasses and ice walls. Adele and I met the dawn at 5700m on the upper slopes. The eastern skyline was punctured by the spears and obelisks of the great peaks of the Nanda Devi range. The sunrise came slow but at 6.00am the sun burst forth in glory. Soon after, Francis and team passed us on their descent, close on two hours ahead of us.
Had they been to the top? Well, yes and no. True to the sporting tradition of amateur mountaineering they had stopped three metres below a crowning cornice and decreed that the summit plinth should remain the domain of god Vishnu and his cohorts. Adele and I applied no such scruples on our arrival. With the aid of two axes she heaved up the overhang with a timely push on her bottom from below. The rest of us followed, most poignantly Heera and Mangal, for whom this was one of their cherished local summits.
The views of distant giants like 7756m Kamet was tempered by intriguing prospects of nearby glaciers and surrounding peaks. The name Vishnu Killa – Vishnu’s citadel – was mooted for our mountain. We will submit this to the Indian authorities for approval. The only disappointment was that our GPS recorded the altitude as a mere 5960 metres rather than the 5968 we expected!
By midday the last stragglers staggered back into camp, enervated rather than ecstatic. A succession of brews and a freeze-dried meal soon restored equilibrium.
We all returned safely to base camp in the shadowed hours after dawn and celebrated success with mugs of sweet tea, a tot of scotch and a feast of deep-fried pakora. We’d enjoyed a true wilderness experience and completed a climb of great quality that could be a future classic.
Veteran IFMGA mountain guide, Martin Moran, has been supported by Mountain Equipment on all his climbs and expeditions since 2000. His guiding company www.moran-mountain.co.uk specialises in off-beat trips to wild places in Scotland, Norway and the Himalaya.