Kun-quered... an expedition to Nun Kun, Zanskar, India
There is a disclaimer used in investment brochures. Past performance is no indication of future outcomes. The same could be said for mountaineering. Just because you have done well in the past, does not guarantee success on future climbs.
And so I write my story about Mt Kun. Or “Project 7000” as I dubbed it.
Nun and Kun from the air, en route to Leh. Kun is on the right.
Mt Kun (7077m) is part of a massif known as Nun Kun, in the Zanskar Mountains of northen India. Nun and Kun are both just over 7000m high and stand out as some of the highest peaks in the region, not far from the Pakistan border.
In 2013 I climbed Kang Yatze 2, 6200m in nearby Ladakh. I made it to 6140m due to rather tough snow conditions on the day. (For this story, see my previous post Six Times Two here... http://elevatedthinkingat.blogspot.com.au/ )
My guide on KY2, Nima Sherpa, had shown me some pictures on his mobile phone of Kun. It gave me the idea of addressing a dream held since climbing Island Peak, Nepal in 2010. The dream of climbing a 7000er.
So there I was, landing in hot monsoonal Delhi in July 2015. 8 months of preparation, hard sustained training, and organizing an expedition company to do the logistics. I was joined by a group of 3 other friends, Ken, Lilian and Vipul, who also wanted to climb a 7000m peak. I was the only one in the group to have climbed to 6000m before, but they were younger and most likely fitter than me. So I had confidence that they could do it if they set their minds to it, and also followed the rules of high altitude climbing.
Nepal had a massive earthquake in April 2015, and due to this I decided to raise funds for the Australian Himalayan Foundation's Nepal Earthquake Appeal, by having people sponsor our Mt Kun climb. We raised $2174, which although not stellar, was well received by the AHF and the many Nepali people we met in the mountains. We were given an AHF flag to fly from the summit as PR for them. Now it felt like a real expedition!
A few hot sweaty days in Delhi saw us registering at the rather formidable IMF, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, and meeting the cheerful team from White Magic, our expedition organizers.
IMF required an appointed Trip Leader, which ended up being me...(what a surprise!)
This meant the IMF would expect me to be responsible for all decisions made on behalf of the team. Hmmm. Better behave myself up there?
A few days later, the spectacular flight to Leh over the Himalaya gave me a clear view of Nun Kun off to the west. My first thought was “Shit, they look big”.
Arriving in Leh , at 3200m, meant we had to spend a number of days getting used to the high altitude. Ken and Lilian wanted to do a short valley trek not long after arriving, but I opted to take a jeep ride to visit the beautiful high altitude Pangong Lake via the 5300m Chang La. It was a spectacular trip although the weather began to turn snowy at the pass, and on the way back I developed a nasty cold which lasted a few days, and laid me in bed for 24 hours.
Beautiful Pangong Lake
Finally the day came where we began our acclimatisation trek. Our team from White Magic included Pawan, our appointed Liaison Officer, Namgyal our fearless guide, the two (Everest summit climbers multiple times) Mingma brothers (Mingma Dorjee and Mingma Tensing) and some friendly kitchen crew and other entourage. The planned route had to be changed due to unseasonal snow on the Kanji La Pass. We would now go over the Matho La , a 4900m pass near Stok Kangri.
The days were hot, but the pass was sublime. Matho La was a peaceful wild place. We acclimatized well. I am finding that the more I climb to these heights, the better I feel. It’s always hard work for sure, but to date, no real health issues. Climbing at altitude with fully loaded packs was hard, but my main issue was the heat in the Ladakh valleys in early afternoon. In midsummer it was far from pleasant. I felt that perhaps the group needed to make earlier starts.
Matho La campsite (4400m)
On top of Matho La 4950m with Stok Kangri in the background
After one extra day in Leh, the tortured, twisty road trip on NH1 via Lamayuru and Kargil in Zanskar began.
Making a mandala in Lamayuru Monastery
Kargil felt like a very ‘frontier’ place. A town very close to Pakistan, mostly Muslim. Despite its proximity to the border it never felt threatening. It did feel like we were more in Pakistan than India though.
Then the very scenic Suru Valley became our campsite for the night. Nun and Kun loomed at the end of the valley. They looked high. And rather daunting. Could we imagine ourselves up there?
Nun and Kun from the Suru Valley. Kun is on the left.
The next day saw us arrive at Shafat. A beautiful valley guarded by the “Shafat Fortress”, a picturesque 5000m peak.
Several days of venturing up the pretty Shafat Valley towards Shafat Glacier via icy moraines, flower filled grassy valleys and treacherous mud slopes brought us to Kun Base Camp (KBC) at 4300m.
Flower Valley Yoga
On the way we saw fresh snow leopard prints on our trail! I’ll have to return to try and see these big mountain cats!
However the wildlife we saw was mostly marmots and choughs (black birds).
The rugged glacier moraine trail proved too much for our pony brigade, which had to return to Rangdum. Our gear ended up being transported by porters.
The team at Kun Base Camp. Mt Nun in background.
Base camp was our home for a few days while we acclimatised. Nun loomed off up the valley. A 6000m peak called Z1 (Zanskar 1 I presume) was constantly dropping avalanches down it's steep slopes. They were not a danger to us, but Z1 looked like a nasty piece of work. Not a side I could see looked like a safe climb.
Home sweet tent, opposite the Shafat Glacier.
Ken had developed a nasty chest infection causing him to have coughing fits. He said he was ready to leave Base Camp and go home, but our Liaison Officer Pawan, encouraged us all to stay another day at KBC to allow him to recover. We then spent an afternoon load ferrying extra gear to a midway “gear stash” point at 4700m in preparation for the climb to Camp 1 at 5300m.
The extra rest day paid off, and Ken was with us for the rest of the climb. I didn’t fancy the group splitting up so early. It was a long haul to Camp 1, via the gear stash where we swapped our hiking boots for the double boots needed for the cold high altitude conditions. Our trusty Sherpas met us near the end of the climb to Camp 1 and began carrying some of our loads for us. Not called for, but we didn’t complain.
Lilian, Vipul and me, Trying to look like mountaineers...
Camp 1 was spectacular. So was the weather the following day. A killer blue blue sky. So blue we spent much of the day hiding from it in the tents, the UV was so intense. We did have a short walk up toward the mountain but mostly lay around telling jokes and listening to music.
During the day the Sherpas began fixing the route up the ice wall above us.
Spot the Sherpas...fixing the route up the ice wall.
All the time the crack and rumble of avalanches around us reminded us not to take the mountains too lightly. We couldn’t explore much either, due to the amount of hidden crevasse danger. I called it our ice prison.
But the following day it was time to move to Camp 2. Ropes had been fixed by the Sherpas but one new section had been changed from the day before. This was lucky, as during our approach a cascade of snow and rock came suddenly over the cliff near that spot. Had we been in the original trail blazed by the Sherpas we may have been in the line of the avalanche. Our new route avoided the danger. We had dodged a bullet for sure.
It was tough going after that, using jumars and fixed ropes, with loaded packs, soft snow and a 70 degree slope. This was the famed ice wall, about 800m of pure UP!
I was questioning my sanity sometimes. But then I would look around, and marvel at where we were. It was nothing short of spectacular. Camp 1 was a tiny black speck. The Himalayas are truly huge.
After arriving at a rocky ridge christened the “Lunch Col”, it was time to tackle stage 2 of the climb.
The "Lunch Col"
Todays climbing was considered to be the hardest part of the entire mountain. But on this part, the snow conditions got worse. Mushy gelato. With the odd crevasse hole for good luck. I would pull up on the jumar in the mushy goo, saying under my breath, “Yes You Can” . Then pause , maybe for even a few minutes, then try again. I noted the darkening skies to the northeast. Storms. Great. Far away though but moving our way slowly, I knew I could make the top before worrying about those.
Mt Kun and Camp 2
At around 3pm the glacial plateau appeared. And there was Nun to the left, and Kun to the right. At 6100m an amazing place. Just like in the pictures I had seen.
Nun and Camp 2
A high world, a 4 km plateau of snow and ice, with the two 7000 m peaks standing sentinel, one at each end.
Time to set up camp and rest. And we got a nice photo of us holding the AHF flag in front of Kun. It felt good to be there.
But that afternoon we heard rumbles, and saw darkening skies and fast growing cumulus clouds piled up all around the mountain.
I was concerned, but luckily the storms seemed to just hover around the mountain, not reaching us. It was a tense time for me though.
Next day, after another late start (grrr), off we marched to Camp 3 under bluebird skies.
The heat was getting to me, as well as the soft snow.It might have been ice, but felt like a frypan.
Ken kept doubling over in coughing fits. Lilian was always ahead, definitely the fittest in the group on this trip. Vipul looked like he was having a tough time, as he was way behind. Later I found he kept running out of drinking water. I had this problem on a glacier in New Zealand, and now use a water bladder to drink from (Vip was using a Nalgene bottle) . It's awful dehydrating in those situations.
I have learnt my lesson, but still also have a bottle as back up as bladders will freeze if cold enough. But we had all day to cover the 2.8 km to Camp 3, so everyone got there in the end. It took about 3 hours to walk that short distance at the altitude of 6200m.
At Camp 3, after some rather tasteless dal bhat (I’m still failing to enjoy it despite my love of other Indian food), we rested in preparation for the summit push. We decided to try for it that evening. The weather was turning foul again, and more storms were forming.
Nun creates its own cumulus storm cloud.
After preparing our climbing gear, I tried for some short term sleep, although Kens restlessness kept me awake for much of that time. The tents went from being bitterly cold as it snowed, to almost boiling inside when the sun came out. At one point I went out onto the snow topless, as I was overheating so much! Crazy to think at 6200m it could get so hot. It made for a good photo opportunity for Ken anyway!
I did manage some sleep though, and at 10pm we prepared for the summit climb. Suddenly a cry came from Lilian’s tent. She had dislocated her shoulder. This was a pre-existing condition but she had controlled it to this point.
Ken ( who is a doctor) came to her aid and taped it up but we lost an hour, now leaving at 11pm. Off into the darkness we climbed. To the east a storm flashed ominously, but I noted it appeared to be heading away from us. At one point as we climbed, Ken’s water bottle fell off, and we watched as it hurtled endlessly down the slope in the dark. The slope steepened, and soon we had to get on fixed ropes with jumars again. After a bergschrund was crossed, the slope became almost vertical. I knew it wasn’t endless, but it felt so. I was now above any height I had previously climbed, and I was gasping at every upward step. But I had no altitude problems at all. No headache or dizziness...it was just bloody hard!
Above 6547m a small valley on the ridge was reached. I could see Ken and Lilian and the Sherpas ahead on another slope above. Something was wrong, as they were not progressing. I stopped to eat a snack bar which had frozen solid. My water bladder has also frozen now but I had my bottle as well. It was so cold, I had to quickly swap gloves, hats, mittens etc.
This felt like frostbite territory. On Nun a few years prior , people had lost fingers, toes and noses to it, so this was a reality I had to address, and fast!
Vipul caught up to me and we were told to wait there by the Sherpas.
Then came the bad news. The wind was too strong above us to continue safely. We had to return to Camp 3!
I took some selfies with Vipul, and a picture of my GPS reading. We were at 6600m. It was 3am.
It was uneventful coming down, and abseiling in the dark didn’t worry me. Hard work, but easier than going up.
At Camp 3, half an hour after arriving, the light of dawn began, albeit in whiteout conditions.
Windswept Kun and Camp 3
Our guide, Namgyal invited us to have a second attempt the following evening. Could we go through that again? Lilian had been helped by the two Mingma brothers up the slope. She had done well. Ken had coughed his way up. He did well too. But could we do all this again?
Mt Kun approach route (with old and updated camp locations)
And the weather. It was foul. Kun had clouds screaming off it.
I was the official leader. My decisions were all accountable. I couldn’t feel comfortable sending the group back up given the circumstances. We had made it to within 877m distance and 477m elevation from our goal. We had all climbed higher than ever before. But if something went wrong, I had two people with a bad physical conditions to consider, and weather that didn’t look to be improving any time soon. And a climb of at least 12 hours to complete.
Ken on the glacier with Nun.
I wanted this summit, but the desire to return safely was stronger. To push our luck and fail could have dire results. I had to trust my instincts.
I spoke to our LO Pawan on the walkie talkie but due to the bad reception he thought we had not gone for the summit at all, so was telling me we should make an attempt on it. Later back at KBC he found out that we already had tried, at the time he wanted us to at least have one shot at it. Which we had at least.
I had a hunch on the radio that the message was mixed up as the signal often cut out as we talked ...and at least this proved right. He later told me that he thought we made the right call to return.
So after much debate and soul searching, everyone agreed that we should go to back to Base Camp. And it was a long day. Terribly soft snow, hard abseils over newly opened crevasses and overall exhaustion.
Me saying farewell to Kun. The small black rock on the RH ridge was our highest point (6600m).
We had gone with almost no sleep for 36 hours. The second abseil on the ice wall was blessed with better snow than the first section. Which is good, as I was almost ruined by the time I had reached the “Lunch col”.
Mingma was pointing out many new crevasses, as things had really changed on the way back down. The group opted to go all the way to KBC. On the way back we found an other-worldly misty ice landscape. It made things seem much better.
I got some great photos of this alien world on the way back.
Ken abseils toward Camp 1
Base camp seemed like an oasis. Green, with real food, and life, flowers and birds. Up high, our food had been basic and rather tasteless. All water had to be melted from snow. Not a place to stick around.
Another day had to be spent while we waited for porters to arrive from Rangdum. A nice way to welcome the group back was the yummy 'summit cake' thoughtfully decorated with our fundraiser on it :)
The walk out from KBC was sublime. Carpets of flowers with amazing alpine scenery made the walk a wonderful compensation for returning home empty handed. At our flower valley, the Mingma brothers showed us how to catch fish by hand from the streams. It was amazing to watch, and to try, and that night back at Shafat, the fish proved to be a delicious dinner.
Here fishy fishy....
Ken the keen fisherman
It was a great way to end our climb (and so was the beer at the Shafat camp!)
The climbers and White Magic team celebrate at Shafat.
As we had returned a bit earlier to Leh, I thought I would try to climb 6135m Stok Kangri in the 3 days I had left. Mingma came with me, and we set off early from 3600m to get to Stok Base Camp at 4950m. As we were very well acclimatized, we could get there in one day (it normally would take 3).
Mingma decides the hill is too steep for me with my pack so carries both our packs down the slope!
However the stormy weather left the river high and fast, and we ended up having to cross the icy water twice using a rope. Man! It was cold! My feet were red with cold afterwards.
We helped a few guys from the Czech Republic to cross as well. They were so grateful for the use of the rope that they offered money to Mingma, but of course he didn’t accept it. It’s just the code of the mountains to help others in need after all.
Parachute cafe at Mankermo
Stok Kangri Base Camp (4950m)
At 2.30pm we arrived at Stok Kangri Base Camp. Quite a few others were there.
We would set off at midnight so I rested. I felt a bit queasy for a while, maybe due to the high altitude gain, but it soon passed.
That night at 9.30pm an electrical storm hit us. Wind, rain, thunder and lightning. And I hate storms in the mountains! It passed eventually though I only got a little sleep. At midnight we looked out, but no one else was preparing to leave. We waited till 12.30am, but then decided we would go for it. We prepared our packs for the summit climb. I did one last weather check and saw a few flashes. The old storm moving away?
More flashes. This was a new storm. “Mingma” I said…”You’re not going to like this”…
He confirmed it and said , “It's coming this way”. And it did. With a vengeance. The tent lit up like it was under a spotlight, thunder gurgled, growled and popped around us. I laid on the floor of the tent, just telling the storm to go away. Our summit attempt was gone. Our time window to go for the summit had passed. I didn’t have an extra day to wait another day, as I was due to leave Leh. So after a cold sleep with no sleeping bag (we didn’t bring any as we were meant to climb at midnight) before breakfast, we climbed to the saddle above us at 5200m to say hello and goodbye to Stok Kangri.
Failed Ladakhi summit #3. Stok Kangri (6135m)
View back towards Leh.
And I realized that of 3 summits I wanted to climb in Ladakh to date, I have actually summited none! In this case, I had been Kun-quered!
But I have had a hell of a good time having a go…
Me at Camp 1 with Z1 behind.
The mountains have been teaching me something valuable here. Despite the cliché, the journey really is more important than the destination.
Summits are a great goal to have, but getting to them is the real adventure, even if that moment of glory is not possible. And getting home alive is even more important. I am truly humbled by these mountains, I have learned a lot about them and about myself. I’m even slightly less worried about spending a night in a storm on a mountain (but maybe not by much!)
Where to next? That’s a tough one. I still love climbing (even though I might have said otherwise on the ice wall of Kun!).
High mountains continue to fascinate me, and I think that I cope well with them and the high altitude effects on my body. A 7000m summit is still waiting for me somewhere, and is a barrier I want to break before getting any bigger ideas.
An attractive interesting peak maybe... but where?
Let’s have a look at a few of those brochures…..