The Himalayan ranges beyond Kishtwar village in Jammu and Kashmir are invariably appealing to the eyes and minds of all styles of climbers. From the early twentieth century, Kishtwar has played host many a times to climbers from different parts of the world. This spell bounding landscape made of gorgeous granite, which is coated with ice and snow puts your mental and physical to test. Expeditions involve week long trekking to get to the base camp of the peak you are climbing. The peaks are small but the climbs are often quite demanding and require a lot of technical climbing. The weather conditions are most suitable for climbing from May to October. The more sought after summits in this range include the Sickle Moon at 6575m, Brammah I at 6416m, Brammah II at 6485m, Cerro Kishtwar at 6143m, Arjuna at 6200m, Flat Top at 6100m and Kishtwar Shivling at 6000m. In the early nineties, due to bureaucratic issues, the wild vacationers of the western world were denied permits to climb there. It was only in 2011 alpinists revisited the area and have produced a lot of powerful climbing ever since. As we draw to the end of 2016, we shall proceed to reminisce some high and low moments of climbing in Kishtwar earlier this year.
1. Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders bag first ascent of Shib Shankar/Sersank Peak (6050m)
After a gap of 29 years, British climbers Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders reunited to climb the North buttress of Shib Shankar in the Indian Himalayas. Their best times together go back to the eighties when they climbed the most punishing winter routes in the Scottish Peaks at the time.
Until this year, their last climb together was the first ascent of the Golden Pillar (7027m) in Pakistan, in 1987. In the nineties, both of them went their own ways. Vic became a mountain guide based in Chamonix and Mick returned to his tax office job. Last year when Chamonix based mountaineer Eric Vola compiled segments of books by Vic and Mick, and published the collection in French as “Le Tribulations de Mick et Vic”. It won the Grand Prix award at the Passy book festival. This brought Mick and Vic together thus, giving birth to the idea of climbing together again in the Himalayas. Mick had his eyes on Sersank peak years ago and had been contemplating the possibilities of climbing it. The duo confirmed their intentions after inquiring with a friend and decided on their objective for 2016.
On September 28th they made their way up the face and returned eight days later to the base camp after tasting glory at the summit. In an interview with the renowned climbing magazine alpinist, Fowler said “It was a brilliant and memorable outing. The first day was crossing the Sersank La to the foot of the face. The second day was slow going with powder on steep rock. The third day was mainly a sharp, exposed crest with powder and rock challenges (crampons removed at one point) and the fourth, fifth and sixth days were fantastic ice/mixed climbing. Day 7 was mixed/snow climbing to the summit followed by glacial terrain in descent. Day 8 was very complex and satisfying glacial terrain involving several abseils from abalakovs.” (Franz, Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders make first ascent of Sersank Peak’s north face, 2016)
In 2008, the Japanese team credited with the first ascent of the mountain failed to climb the last forty meters to the true summit. Apparently, due to religious reasons, the locals asked them not to climb that portion of the peak. But this year, after confirming with the locals Fowler and Saunders made their way up and bagged the first ascent of the peak.
Mick Fowler has now become a celebrity amongst the Kishtwar mountains. He teamed up with Paul Ramsden in 2013 to tackle the Prow of Shiva (6142m) and succeeded in making the first ascent to the top. They received the Piolet d’Or award given by the French magazine Montagnes and The Groupe de haute Montagne since 1991. The award is given after considering multiple aspects of the climb. Respecting the beauty of the mountains, the style of movement and the spirit with which they climb the mountain are some of them.
In 2014 Marko Prezelj, Luca Lindic and Ales Cesen made the first ascent of the North face of Hagshu (6657m) in the Kishtwar range thus, earning them a place in the Piolet d’Or archives. Marko Prezelj again received the Piolet d’Or 2016 for his ascent of Cerro Kishtwar (6175m) in 2015, climbing with a different team of climbers.
2. Jeff Shapiro and Christopher Gibisch open new route on Brammah II (6475m)
Speaking of stimulating climbs, earlier this year in September, American climbers Jeff Shapiro and Christopher Gibisch came to Kishtwar in search of uncharted lines. After several days of travel through disperse means, the duo reached the base of the mighty Brammah II (6475m). When they saw the South face of the mountain, the duo envisioned the route they would access to reach the sanguine summit of Brammah II. Due to warm temperatures, they started climbing early in the morning to prevent falling hazards. The pair summitted by dusk and basked in the beauty of the surroundings before making their way down. The combination of the aesthetic setting and the electrifying factor of the climb makes it an experience they are grateful for. Two days and two nights of descending brought them back to the base camp where they deliberated on the account of their climb. They had managed the first ascent of the South face of Brammah II and named their route Pneuma. (Gibisch, 2016)
3. Alison Criscitiello loses partner Anna Smith on the mountain
In compensation to the joy and delight derived from the mountains, an undesired gloom is presented forth by the same mountains. This year, the climbing community loses another brilliant climber and moreover a beautiful soul, Anna Smith. Internationally renowned Canadian climber Anna Smith and her climbing partner Alison Criscitiello came to India to climb the Brahmasar II. They were granted the Mugs Stump award for their objective. Mugs Stump was one of North America’s iconic and imaginative climbers until his death after a fall into a crevasse in Alaska. To honor him, the Mugs Stump award was established in 1993 which provided funding for small North American climbing teams who shared Mugs’ vision of climbing bold, raw and leaving no trace of human presence. Heavy precipitation that led to flooding in the Brahmasar II region forced Smith and Criscitiello to wander north into the Miyar Valley to climb another route.
During their ascent to the advance base camp(4900m), Smith experienced altitude disturbances and the pair descended to lower altitudes. A few days later, when they pushed their path to higher altitudes, Criscitiello suffered from minor headaches. Smith was ready to go. The next morning, was gray and full of grief when Criscitiello found her partner in her tent devoid of life. Reasons to her demise are not certain. “She passed away in her sleep” Criscitiello said in an interview with CBC news. (Fletcher, 2016) Criscitiello performed a CPR before moving to base camp, to request for assistance to evacuate.
“I sat with Anna for two nights and three days, until an evacuation team from Manali was able to get to me on foot.” Criscitiello told CBC news.
A whole day was needed to bring Smith’s body back to base camp, and another two days to get her out of Miyar Valley. Smith was cremated in Manali. A memorial service was organised in her honour and spirit in Canmore on October 16th.
Smith held pure passion and immense respect for the mountains. “The beauty of those places, and how blessed we are, that’s a part of our lives, that we can reach out and access that – I think that is fantastic.” Anna Smith expressed in an interview in 2015. Smith will be remembered for her contributions to the climbing world and her booming laugh. True as they say, the brave may not live long, but the cautious perish having not lived at all.
Mother nature, as much as she loves to create, loves to destroy as well, reminding us our time on this beautiful planet is limited and we ought to be grateful for everything we are blessed with. As we come to the end of this year and mark the beginning of a new one, the Kishtwar range remains solid and formidable. Let us hope to sing more songs and share new stories in honor of our community and our fallen Eco warriors.
Author: Laxman Devadas Varma
First thing one should know about him is, he is the guy your parents warned you not to be friends with. He is a poet, climber and an engineer, all wrapped up into one. He believes the key to a good life lies within.