In order to be better acclimatized for their upcoming projects this summer, Kumar Gaurav from India and Jonathan Parker from the USA wanted to do an early ascent of Stok Kangri (6153 meters). Because they had both done the traditional South Face before, Jonathan suggested they attempt the seldom climbed East Face.
It rained in base camp during the previous three days, and for about five hours the night they were scheduled to climb. At 12:30 a.m. on 30/7/17 they woke to clear skies and decided to give it a go. The night was warm, and shortly after beginning at 1:10 a.m. they had to shed one of the few layers they were wearing. At 3:10 a.m., after skirting around the base of the glacier and scrambling up to the snow slope, they attached crampons and pulled out their ice axes.
The slope gradually got steeper, and the snow conditions, which were initially solid, later varied from solid ice to waist deep powder to everything in between. They had picked out their route the day before, but once in the middle of the outcroppings of large rocks, thickening clouds, and minor snow fall, they eventually lost their exact location… even while frequently looking at a picture Jonathan had taken on his phone. Knowing that they would eventually reach the final stretch if they just kept climbing up and right, however, they continued to move in that direction.
“Before even attempting the climb,” Kumar said, “I was nervous because the slope looked steeper than anything I had tried before; plus, I knew there would be ice.” Though a strong rock climber, ice climbing was foreign to him. As he came upon patches of ice, fear gripped him and he looked for ways to climb around them, sometimes taking a much longer route. At this point, Kumar recalled what some of the guides had said to him at base camp as they had chatted about his plans: “Ye sab apne liye nahi bana hai; ye sab angrezo ka kam hai.“(Translation: “This is not for us [Indians]; this is for the foreigners.”) He laughs about their comments now, but while in the midst of his mental struggle it wasn’t so funny.
In order to keep the mood light while trudging through waist deep snow during the final 350 meters or so, Jonathan continued to quiz Kumar on Hindi words and phrases that he could add to his slowly growing vocabulary. “Halla Bol!” became their mantra as they made upward progress. And then, one final barrier to the summit stood in their way: A wall of sugary snow that continued to crumble as they placed their axes or applied any body weight. “It was so comical,” remarked Jonathan. “No matter how much snow we dug away and how many methods we tried to get over those 5ft, we made absolutely zero progress.”
After about five minutes of fighting loose snow and gravity, Jonathan managed to worm his way onto the top and extended his ice axe to his partner. Linking axes, Kumar was able to pull himself up. Though the flags couldn’t yet be seen, the end was in sight. But the snow was still thigh deep, and Jonathan, exhausted from breaking trail for so long, couldn’t take it any longer. “I decided to crawl to the summit. Never have I been on all fours [hands and knees] – especially on flat ground – while trying to reach the prayer flags marking the summit. But I didn’t want to keep fighting the snow, and this help spread my weight out more evenly. Kumar, weighing 48kg soaking wet, didn’t have the same problem, and followed me in a much more vertical position. I couldn’t help but laugh at what would have looked like a very odd couple… had anyone been there to actually see it.”
They reached the summit at 8:15 a.m. to see fresh tracks from the South Face, but all the climbers had already descended. “We felt fortunate to have made the top with such poor snow conditions,” Kumar said. “Having been given no beta, and to have chosen our own path up a new face for both of us, we were very excited!”
Watch Romanian couple’s first ascent in Zanskar, Himalayas in this short, classic alpine climbing film.
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