Monday, July 4, 2011

Back to Sasser Kangri II

Welcome back to my blog after a period of inactivity. I'm going to get back into it with some stories of my latest alpine adventure – our second attempt to climb Sasser Kangri II in the eastern part of the Karakoram Mountains of Kashmir

Southwest Face of Sasser Kangri II
Kashmir is a beautiful mountainous region where China, India,and Pakistan come together. Control of Kashmir is disputed between India and Pakistan, as well as between India and China . Several wars have been fought between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and once between India and China. China wrested control of an uninhabited part of Kashmir called the Aksai Chin claimed by India and the Shaksgam River valley north of K2 was given to them by Pakistani in a border treaty. So the Chinese seem happy now with their borders in the region. But the disagreement between India and Pakistan over most of Kashmir, like the Middle East, is one of the world's most intractable conflicts and drives much of the political instability across South Asia. The Indo-Pak Kashmir Conflict has resulted in a military and political stalemate so that Kashmir is now split between both sides along the Line of Control. The LOC is heavily militarized and the northern portion of it runs right through the Karakoram Mountains making it the highest battleground in the world.

Army trucks going over the Kardung La
About three quarters of the Karakoram Range, including K2, is on the Pakistan side of the LOC, but there are a number of spectacular peaks on the Indian side as well. Our objective – Sasser Kangri II -  lies on the Indian side of the LOC. This area, known as the Eastern Karakoram, has seen little climbing activity compared to the Pakistan side because the Indians only opened it recently and permits from India are difficult to obtain. But this also means the area has not been fully explored and many of the peaks are unclimbed.

Sasser Kangri II is nearly 25,000 feet high and the west summit was climbed by the Japanese in the early '80s, but the higher east summit has not seen an ascent making it one of the highest unclimbed mountains in the world. To get to SKII we will fly from Delhi to the town of Leh in the area of Kashmir called Ladakh.  From Leh we need to travel north to the Nubra Valley where we begin our trek to base camp.  But the only way we can go north from Leh is up and over the Kardung La pass.  This is because the Shyok and Indus Rivers that drain the eastern part of the Karakoram flow west over the LOC into Pakistan so that the approach to this most norther tip of India is not politically possible up these river valleys. To access this area the Indian's have constructed a road over the Kardung La, an 18,000 foot pass. The Indians can only keep this pass open in the summer so all the supplies to support their troops along the LOC in the Karakoram mountains must go over this pass during those months. After we drive over the Kardung La we will stay at a small hotel in the Nubra Valley before starting our trek to Base Camp.

Elevation of the pass is more like 17,600 ft - still pretty high
The Karakoram Mountains are one of the most spectacular and challenging places to climb and attracts mountaineers from all over the world. Due to security concerns along the LOC, the Karakoram has been open and closed to climbing over the years. But currently both India and Pakistan have been issuing climbing permits to promote economic development in the region and as a way to garner international recognition of the territory in Kashmir that they control

Indian soldiers headed for the LOC

The conflict continues to take its toll
In 2009 I attempted Sasser Kangri II with Americans Mark Richey and Mark Wilford, and a British climber Jim Louther. From the Nubra Valley we spent three days trekking to a beautiful small meadow that we discovered for our base camp at 17,000 feet. From here we had to find a way up one of several side valleys that would take us over a 20,000 ft pass and onto another glacier that drains the southwest side of SKII that we wanted to climb.

Base Camp
Fortunately the valley behind our base camp led to a snowy pass whose crossing involved glacier travel but no real technical climbing. We made numerous trips over this pass to acclimatize and to find a suitable climbing route up SKII.

Route climbs right side of big couloir - traverses right at half height and then up the wall
After spending over a month at or above base camp we made a serious attempt to climb the Southwest face of SKII and reached about 22,500 ft before retreating in bad weather. By then it was late in the season and our time had run out. I felt we had accomplished a lot with our reconnaissance of a completely unexplored area and getting fairly high on our route. I walked away convinced that we found a safe, but challenging, way to the summit. The route consisted of steep ice and surprisingly good granite and with the work we had put into it I wanted to return to finish the job.

Returning from the wall
At the base of the wall
1st Bivouac

Leading up the ice face at around 22,000 ft

Traversing right into the mixed climbing

2nd Bivouac

Descending to site for 3rd Bivouac
3rd Bivouac chopped out of hard ice
It took a couple of years to arrange the team and get the necessary permits from the Indian Government. Yesterday I flew from Seattle to Newark and met up with my climbing partners Mark Richey and Freddie Wilkinson so that we could all fly to Delhi together and begin our second attempt on Sasser Kangri II. I will post several blogs about our expedition this year as far as Leh and maybe as far as the Nubra Valley. But after this my internet connectivity will be nonexistent and I will post what happened when I'm connected again in late August or early September.

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