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Women’s expedition explores new routes in India’s Zanskar Range

From left: Savannah Cummins, Anna Pfaff and Lindsay Fixmer. [Photo] Lindsay Fixmer

From left: Savannah Cummins, Anna Pfaff and Lindsay Fixmer. [Photo] Lindsay Fixmer

Starting near the end of August, Savannah Cummins, Lindsay Fixmer and I spent 24 days climbing and exploring the remote Raru Mountains in northern India’s Zanskar Range. We encountered a plethora of unclimbed 5000- to 6000-meter peaks, rock walls and spires. During our time spent on the Tetleh Glacier we were able to summit the previously unclimbed rock spire of Peak 5400, as well as attempt new routes on Peak R6 and Peak 5750. Weather was the bane of our expedition as we had a total of five days with feasible climbing conditions and 19 with rain, snow, hail and wind.

On August 20, our team arrived in Delhi ready for adventure. This was to be my fourth expedition to northern India’s Zanskar Mountains. I have an affinity for this range and will continue returning to it. We were welcomed by Mr. CS Panday of Himalaya Run and Trek, our logistics company, and he brought us directly to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation to receive our climbing permit and meet with our liaison officer.

The next day we started the long journey north with a flight into Leh. There, we gathered last-minute supplies and loaded up a minibus that would be our chariot for the next three days. We drove endless, winding dirt roads deep into the Jammu and Kashmir mountains. We ventured to the border town of Kargil, past Rangdum, home of the epic Shafat Fortress (ca. 5944m), over the Pensi La and onto Padum, the capital of the historical Zanskar Kingdom. From Padum we finished our last leg of driving and arrived in the village of Raru on August 26.

After an overnight stay in a local resident’s home, we packed up 12 horses from an adjacent village with gear and started the journey into base camp. The site had been established by the British and Slovenian teams visiting the area in previous years, and our cook, Heera Singh, had been there the prior year. To minimize impact we utilized the same area of the moraine as the other groups had at 4600 meters.

Fixmer at base camp. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Fixmer at base camp. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Arriving under blue skies, I was awestruck by the shimmering granite peaks that surrounded the valley. Wanting to see more the very next day, Lindsay and I moved a load of gear up the glacier to an area we deemed fit to establish a high camp around 5000 meters. Massive, thick grey clouds soon moved in from the south, shrouding the valley, and snow started falling. We retreated to base camp and spent the next few days acclimatizing on small hikes around the area while the clouds waxed and waned throughout the days.

On September 5 we decided to try Peak R6 (6177m)–a broad mountain with multiple options for new routes–to see how we were moving and acclimatizing. We took gear for a potential bivy and set out in the early morning light. Navigating steep, loose terrain we climbed approximately 400 meters before inclement weather started to form once again, and we retreated through a notch, rappelling down the southeast face of the wall. We returned to base camp just as violent winds set in.

Fixmer and Cummins scope lines from the Tetleh Glacier. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Fixmer and Cummins scope lines from the Tetleh Glacier. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Four days later, we pushed our high camp farther up the glacier towards Peak 5750 and the Kang La, which leads into the popular Miyar Valley. Peak 5750 is a snow-covered peak with glistening lines of ice that cover its north face. Lindsay and I climbed pitches of WI4, M4-5 to just below the summit ridge. Once again the weather crumpled, and we retreated to high camp by rappelling the route on V-threads.

Back at base camp, we discussed our options based on the weather pattern. The three of us decided to give Peak 5400, which we dubbed “The Gem,” a go. It is by far the smallest formation in the valley but we successfully made it to the summit on September 13, after climbing approximately 400 meters of unknown terrain up to technical difficulties of 5.10. There were no signs of previous climbers on the summit. We celebrated our adventure with hugs and retreated to the glacier just before sunset.

Cummins belays Pfaff on Peak 5400, Zanskar Range, India. [Photo] Lindsay Fixmer

Cummins belays Pfaff on Peak 5400. [Photo] Lindsay Fixmer

With less than a week left, Lindsay and I decided to return for a second attempt on Peak 5750. We once again returned to high camp and waited out a few storms. In the early morning hours of September 17, we started back up our original route only to find conditions less than stable with all of the fresh snowfall. More than a foot of powder covered the steep ice runnels and granite crack systems. The small serac on the summit also looked more loaded than it had on the previous occasion. As we bailed and packed up our high camp, we were confident in our decision to retreat because of these objective hazards.

Pfaff on Peak 5750, Zanskar Range, India. [Photo] Lindsay Fixmer

Pfaff on Peak 5750. [Photo] Lindsay Fixmer

The Raru Valley is a special place, and I highly recommend going there. Local residents said the weather is usually not as wet, and that this year we were experiencing a late monsoon.

Thank you to everyone who supported this unforgettable journey into the unknown.