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New Routes in Unexplored Valleys of Northern India’s Himachal Pradesh

Mountain peaks in Lahul district, Himachal Pradesh, India.

[Photo] John Hill/Wikimedia Commons

Unsettled weather and dangerous snow conditions had derailed Paul Swienton’s peak plans. Tent bound with climbing partner, Steve Kennedy, he lay in his sleeping bag as rocks, snow and ice tumbled down from the mountain, and sleep was elusive. He thought about the avalanche that nearly wiped out their camp the day prior, and wondered if conditions would improve or deteriorate before his time was up in this remote basin in Himachal Pradesh, India. Swienton welcomed the 2 a.m. alarm, and quickly scrambled out of the tent and into the frigid darkness.

To the southeast, Peak 5300 loomed in the blankness of night, jettisoning frozen missiles that passed just beyond the white pools of light cast by headlamps. Occasional, glittering flashes signaled their passage down the mountainside. The rocks fell away, bouncing and settling into the surrounding moraine.

Himachal Pradesh is a mountainous state in Northern India bordered to the north by Jammu and Kashmir and to the east by the Tibet Autonomous Region. A maze of valleys and mountain passes, carved by rivers and glaciers, provides access to the peaks in an area that has hardly been explored by Westerners.

On May 14 Swienton joined noted Scottish climber Andy Nisbet (UK – Team Leader), along with Bill McConachie (US), Steve Kennedy (UK), Robert Adams (UK) and Tom Adams (UK) to seek out unclimbed peaks in Himachal Pradesh. Financed by The Mount Everest Foundation and The Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the team’s main objectives were Peak 6010 and Peak 5970, two mountains in a valley north of Kuddu.

Five years earlier, Swienton and three teammates made two first ascents in India’s Sikkim Valley region. [Read about Swienton’s 2010 FAs here: British-American Expedition Nabs FAs in Sikkim–Ed.] Now he was back with a new team, drawn to a more remote area that has only in recent years been opened to Westerners. With no record of previous attempts on the peaks in these isolated valleys, much of the land is unmapped, and its features unnamed.

Swienton’s team headed north across the Darcha-Mayar valley and into a side valley, to establish a base camp at the mouth of a third, smaller valley, surrounded by peaks that rose abruptly from the earth. High altitude porter Mangal Singh joined Nisbet and McConachie for an attempt at Peak 6010, while Kennedy, Swienton and the Adams brothers, along with Lakpa Sherpa attempted Peak 5970.

On May 31, Nisbet and McConachie cramponed up a couloir on the southwest face of Peak 6010, and camped on the south ridge at 5730 meters. The next morning Nisbet remained at high camp, recovering from a respiratory illness, while McConachie climbed the south ridge of the peak. The fresh snow was surprisingly stable, and he easily negotiated several short, rocky steps to reach the summit of Peak 6010. There, McConachie discovered evidence of an earlier summit climb: bamboo wands, likely placed by climbers who had accessed the peak from Shingo La Pass. A trekking route there divides Jammu and Kashmir, to the north, and Himachal Pradesh, to the south, and access to Peak 6010 would be a tempting climb for trekkers on the pass. The new route on Peak 6010 was assigned an alpine grade of PD+ (Peu Difficile+).

Meanwhile Kennedy, Swienton and the Adams brothers climbed to the east ridge of Peak 5970, in the same valley. They established an advanced base camp on a rock outcrop at 5550 meters, and on June 1, climbed higher on the ridge. Conditions on the peak were much different than those McConachie encountered on Peak 6010. The heavily-corniced route masked the ridge, and loose snow collapsed and fell away beneath their feet. The team climbed to 250 meters below the summit, then retreated to base camp. The weather worsened, and they stayed at camp for several days.

High Camp at 5550 meters on Peak 5970. The team’s highpoint was on a snowfield at 5720 meters. They retreated because of unstable snow conditions.

[Photo] Rob Adams

Finally, on June 6, Kennedy and Swienton, along with Lakpa Sherpa set out in the afternoon to attempt an unclimbed peak located on the east side of a valley they had crossed on their approach to base camp, north of Kuddu. The peak was identified on an available map as 5300 meters. The three men climbed to about 4700 meters and established an advanced camp on snow, alongside a small moraine slope in the lower reaches of an enclosed cirque on the northwest side of the peak.

In the evening, Kennedy and Swienton gathered water from a waterfall, where they witnessed a slow moving avalanche heading towards their camp.

“It was humongous,” Swienton told Alpinist, “[the slide was] heading right for our tent, and there was no time to move camp. We watched it come down, and were relieved when the slide suddenly turned in another direction with the slope of the mountain. It narrowly missed the tent, but we had an uneasy night after that. We could hear rocks and snow whipping by the tent, and were relieved to get up at 2 a.m.”

On that early morning of June 7, Kennedy and Swienton set out on good neve, via the cirque on the northwest side of Peak 5300.

“The rock was very loose. We would tap it for soundness and a lot of it pulled away. That was eye-opening,” Swienton says.

The team reached a prominent col east of the base of the summit snow cone, at an altitude of about 5170 meters, they estimated. The next 130 meters comprised 60- to 75-degree snow, and a final exposed, rocky corner and snow arete.

After four and a half hours of mixed climbing on steep snow, ice and crumbling rock, the two men stood on the westernmost and higher of two rock pinnacles at the summit of Peak 5300. As the morning sun lit up the Darcha Valley below, Swienton and Kennedy relished their position, and their timing. They spent forty-five minutes on the summit, admiring the views.

The team named the peak Sgurr Kuddu. “Sgurr” means sharp-pointed peak in Gaelic, and Kuddu refers to the area overlooked by the peak. “Sgurr,” growls Swienton, in a guttural tone befitting its Scottish roots. “You have to say it like that.” They gave the route an alpine grade of AD (Assez Difficile/fairly hard).

Sgurr Kuddu (Peak 5300) from Base Camp. On June 7 Paul Swienton and Steve Kennedy completed the route, rating their line of ascent AD (Assez Difficile/fairly hard).

[Photo] Paul Swienton

Sources: Paul Swienton,