Last year, the young British trio, comprising of Pro-Team Athlete, Uisdean Hawthorn, Ben Silvestre and Pete Graham established the new line, named Gandiva (1400m E3/5.11 M5) up Arjuna South West Pillar (6100m), in the Indian Kishtwar Himalaya. It took the team four and a half days to complete the attempt. Uisdean recalls the story below.
Words by Uisdean Hawthorn
The Seed Is Planted
Pete Graham and I were sitting in the house listening to the Patagonian winds roar outside. Racing through the streets of El Chalten, plumes of dust were being dragged along, imitating the clouds flying off the mountains in the far distance. Pete was mumbling in his Cumbrian drawl about going on an expedition next year with Ben Silvestre.
A minute later he mumbled “You want to come?” I paused briefly and replied “Ehhh yeah okay, where you thinking of going?” “Not sure, Himalaya maybe”.
And that was that, we went back to staring at the forecast and wondering if it was worth venturing outside to go to the shop.
To Base Camp
Eight months later, I was standing in Heathrow Airport with Pete, Ben and a mountain of bags. The anticipated deliberation of pleading our case with the airline employee and trying on the usual ‘I never usually get charged for the excess’ spiel, proved unsuccessful… ‘Sorry Sir, your bags are still overweight’. Ultimately, we had failed the ‘duffle shuffle’ and paid the excess.
We landed in Delhi the next day and drove through the bustling roads to the Indian Mountain Federation. Despite the pointless briefing we met our incredibly helpful liaison officer, Tarra. The first thing he did was take us out for lunch and order outstanding curry. He told us smiling, that he was into good food which suited Pete, Ben and myself as we are not your typical lightweight, carrot-legged sport climbers.
The next two days were spent in a sweaty mini bus as it bounced along a land rover track. The track ran along a steep sided valley hugging the cliff – the deathly drop on the outside always far too close to the wheels to allow us to fully relax. Eventually, tired and relieved we made it to Galabgar where we spent the night.
When we arrived at the trail head early the next day, the first obstacle was to get all our gear and porters across the river using a tiny Tyrolean box. A curry lunch was made once we were all safely across. Feeling slightly fuller, we walked for a few hours until we decided to camp for the night.
As everyone else set up and started cooking, the porters point blank refused to let us do anything that could be seen as work or in any way helping them.
I found this completely bizarre as it was genuinely something I had never experienced before. We would occasionally try and sneakily do something like wash a plate, only to be bombarded by everyone asking us to stop and go and sit down.
We did finally gain a small victory though, after several porters had been trying to no avail for over 30 minutes to put up a large tent, before eventually being forced to accept our help. The tent was up in a matter of minutes. For me it felt like a massive relief to be doing some work amongst everyone else. But as soon as the tent was up, we were told to sit down once more.
After another two days of walking up the steep valley we arrived at our base camp (BC). This was in a small sheltered trough, perched above the end of the glacier at 3900m, and used by shepherds for their sheep and goats in summer.
We spent 10 days acclimatising by walking up to the base of the route and sleeping for a few nights at 5000m on a hill behind BC. The majority of our time at BC was spent eating three courses of incredibly tasty curry for every meal.
After three days of rest and eating until we felt sick, we walked for six hours to our gear stash at the base of the route, packed our bags and got to bed early for the 4.30am start the next morning.
Gandiva (1400m E3/5.11 M5) up Arjuna South West Pillar (6100m), in the Indian Kishtwar Himalaya
The normal early start faff ensued, but by first light we were off across the bergschrund.
I felt surprisingly calm as I lead the first block up 300m of easy mixed ground to reach the steeper rock and start of the difficulties. Pete changed into his rock shoes and lead for the rest of the day, although this meant jumaring for the second.
Pete has spent a lot of time in Yosemite, so is good at jumaring and Ben is a Rope Access Technician, so is also efficient. I on the other hand had done it about five times before and I can’t say I would recommend this as a way to learn.
Jumaring up a rope at sea level is an okay activity but doing it at 5000m+ with a very heavy bag is extremely taxing, both physically and mentally. Three long pitches later, Pete was smiling on a belay exclaiming how good the rock climbing was as Ben and I jumared up the fixed rope breathing hard.
Another pitch later we stopped in the evening sun and bivvied. We watched the sun set from the large ledge in our sleeping system of two sleeping bags zipped together with a three-man bivi/storm bag Pete’s dad, Rick, had made for us.
Ten restless hours later, day broke and once the morning faff was over Ben set off up what ended up to be five long, perfect pitches of granite climbing up to E3/5.11.
I must admit to having a few moments of extreme swearing as I got gear, rope, Jumars, bag and myself in a complete cluster. It was a relief to be leading again for the afternoon and finally get to another spacious bivi ledge as the sun set.
A cold 12 hours ensued as a biting wind bit into us on our perch of snow. Thankfully I was on the sheltered side, but Pete and Ben had to swap at one point due to Pete starting to shiver uncontrollably…
The third day of climbing was more time-consuming than the first two. We had two pitches of extremely rough but straight forward rock climbing to get to the top of a pinnacle, but had to commit to abbing into a notch on the other side. This left us at the base of a steep intimidating wall.
The wall above had some cracks and wide chimneys capped by a roof with a slot providing a weakness through the middle. The weakness was easy to climb due to being covered in chicken head-like holds but awkward to Jumar resulting in yet more swearing from me.
Two pitches up this wall and one easy mixed pitch later, we arrived at our third bivi.
We couldn’t all lie flat, but managed to sit half back with our legs out over the edge. Despite this, we were all grateful as the wind didn’t reach into our sheltered corner; we were reasonably warm.
A slow start in the cold with porridge for breakfast and I was leading again. 100m of easy diagonal climbing led to a spike belay below an icy gully with a steep mixed step (Scottish 5 or M5).
This would normally seem easy but we were now over 6000m.
My altitude affected brain underestimated the step. I stupidly lead it with a bag on and ended up getting extremely pumped and out of breath. It felt really wild to climb something so steep at this altitude. Two easier pitches later, we were sitting in the sun on the summit looking out across the incredible views of the Indian Himalaya.
Many abseils later in the dark, Pete and I hung at an ice anchor with nothing to stand on while Ben was somewhere in a tangle of ropes below. After trying and failing to stand comfortably, Pete announced he was “just taking it!”.
Pete had bravely lead 12 abseils to get to the glacier on the south of the mountain, after 10 minutes of glorious walking we had to start abseiling again as the ice got steep. After the tangled ropes were sorted, two abseils later we were on a flattish column of rock.
We stopped to brew up but ended up deciding to sleep a few hours for daylight to descend the final 400m gully. We searched for a flat spot but just ended up throwing the mats down saying “ach that’ll do”.
This didn’t really matter as 4 hours later we all woke up having slept incredibly well. We drank some water, ate whatever food we had left and after a few more abseils, followed by a bit more down climbing, we finally arrive back at the tent for 9am.
“we looked with satisfaction up at the line.”
As we ate some freeze-dried meals and sat in the sun, we looked with satisfaction up at the line.
I thought back to how unsure I was about so many things before this trip – would the route look as good as it did in the few photos we had seen? Would the logistics and bureaucracy that comes with climbing in the Himalaya be hard to deal with? The one thing I didn’t feel was intimidation in the few days before starting the route.
There may be a few reasons for this, but it was mainly due to spending a lot of the last year in the mountains and being able to relax because Pete, Ben and myself worked and really got on well together.
To have climbed such a good looking line of such quality on our first trip to Asia has given me amazing memories and a rare long lasting feeling of satisfaction.
Uisdean is a Scottish climber and alpinist best known for his winter climbing and Alpine exploits. He has made numerous first-ascents in Scotland including the first winter ascent of the Giant (described as “one of the most important winter ascents in Cairngorm climbing history”) and The Messiah at a mighty grade X. He has also repeated numerous hard routes including the Secret (XIII) and Shoot the Breeze (IX).
Abroad, he has climbed the North Face of Mount Alberta, Hyper Couloir and Divine Providence on Mont Blanc, and the American Direct on the Dru. He enjoys all disciplines of climbing, and running too, but is happiest in the mountains.
When at home, Uisdean lives in the North West of Scotland and is a fully qualified joiner.