Exploring unclimbed 6000m peaks in the Mulung Tokpo valley, Zanskar by Tony Westcott

Derek Adele Mike heading towards unclimbed peaks at SW head of the Mulung Tokpo valley – Tony Westcott

In the dark night, freezing cold, with snow still falling, Mike took over from Gus with the stamina-draining task of trail-breaking through 40cm deep heavy wet snow and commented: “Only 5km to go.  I’m sure I can do it, but I’m not sure everyone can make it!”

Two hours earlier, Gus had relieved our three Sherpas after an arduous descent through long glacier moraine boulder fields. Heavy snow the previous day, and the forecast of more to come, had led our six-person team of AC / AAC members, with our Indian Mountaineering Federation Liaison Officer and five-man Sherpa support to decide at 8am to evacuate base camp, leaving three broken tents and our non-essential mountaineering kit which we were unable to personally carry out. It was 11am by the time we had sorted our gear, re-packed manageable sacks and were ready to start the walk out.

It was nearly 25km and 500m of descent from our base camp to the nearest village and roadhead at Ating. The slow, tortuous descent, through boulder fields hidden by the thigh deep snow, tested our aging knees and ankles at every step. By the time darkness fell at 6pm, we were little more than half way. Mike and Gus reached the village and a welcome barn just after midnight; the rest of the team came in over the following two hours.

Manu, Derek and Mike leaving base camp in the snowstorm – Tony Westcott

Recovering next day in the nearby town of Padum, capital of the old Kingdom of Zanskar, we discovered our two-day, 450km return route via Kargil to Leh over the Pensi La pass at 4600m was closed due to the unseasonable snow, the worst in September for 50 years. We learnt that some 250 trekkers were trapped and needing rescue; not helped by their only available helicopter being grounded waiting for rotor repairs. Two days later, police informed us the pass was open again and a 6am departure got us back on programme to catch our scheduled flights home.

Our team of six, with an average age of 63 years and a combined mountaineering experience of some 250 years, had spent two weeks exploring the very remote Mulung Tokpo valley. The Dzongkul Gompa, or monastery, sits high on the mountainside at 3900m, some 5km up the valley from Ating, and is rarely visited by trekkers. There is a good campsite on a small plain before the snout of the glacier at 4188m, where we established our base camp, but beyond that the moraines are tortuous piles of large lose boulders for some 4km before leading on to dry glacier as it climbs to crevassed snowfields and our high camp at 5085m with a spectacular cirque of unclimbed rocky peaks rising to 5800m. A combination of poor weather, deep unconsolidated snow, stretched logistics of placing a higher camp and avalanche risk frustrated our attempt to reach our target peak, so we settled on an attractive triangular peak at 5557m, which we named “Saw Tooth” or “Aari Dont” in Hindi.

The team leaving ABC after the successful first ascent of Aari Dont; L to R Mike, Gus, Derek, Adele Derek & Tony – Tony Westcott

Our team was led by Derek Buckle, and comprised Drew Cook, Mike Fletcher, Adele Long, Gus Morton, and Tony Westcott. Manmohit (Manu) Verma was our Liaison Officer appointed by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.

All in-country arrangements were made through the excellent and very-experienced husband and wife team of Chewang Motup and Yangdu Gombu through their trekking company Rimo Expeditions (www.rimoexpeditions.com). We were supported on site by our Sirdar and high altitude porter (HAP) Anup Tamang and two other exceptional HAPs, Tshering Bhotia and Pemba Nurbu Sherpa, our excellent coo, Santabir Sherpa and his ever-willing assistant Tsedung Bhotia.

We were most grateful for expedition grants from the Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund, the Mount Everest Foundation and the Austrian Alpine Club (UK); with equipment sponsored by Montane, DMM and The Gorge Outdoors (Cheddar).

[Updated 25 March 2019]

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