Monday, July 4, 2011

Bandarpunch, A Successful Summit

The Short Version:
I'm alive and well after standing at 20,722ft! Seventeen out of twenty-one people in our original group made the summit around noon on June 28th. The summit push lasted a long 16 hours, but everyone is alive and healthy. We have officially made Woodstock School history as the school's first ascent of Bandarpunch, not to mention the school's first major mountaineering expedition undertaken by staff. Thank you to all who made this adventure possible and many thanks for all the thoughts and prayers for safe travels.

The group on the summit. I'm holding up the Woodstock School flag on the left!

The Long Version:
In all honesty, I have no idea where to start telling this tale. It was such a unique experience and I'm sure I will be attempting to wrap my brain around it for many months to come. In many ways, it feels like a dream (which is partially attributed to the lack of oxygen that suffocated my brain to the point of limited functionality). I'll try to keep this short, manageable, and somewhat organized, though that is really the antithesis of what the trek was actually like, much less my thoughts about it.

This being my fourth Himalayan trek, I had a good idea what the day-to-day lifestyle might look like. Far from self-sufficient, our team included many cooks, guides, and porters - a trekking style passed on from the British expedition era. Though we were not responsible for cooking or carrying food, our packs were still over 50 pounds, which is a manageable weight at low altitude, but is quite taxing as you get higher. This is where the "known" ends; the rest of the trek was full of unknowns and surprises.

Most surprising to me was the lack of information and navigation. None of our guides had ever done this route, so they could not give us a good picture of what to expect. In light of this, NIM hired a Sherpa guide who knew the route. True to Sherpa form, he was incredibly smiley and happy to help, but was very vague when it came to specific details.

As a lover of maps, it was very disorienting to never see one. The area is so close to Tibet that the government does not allow detailed (i.e. navigational) maps to be produced. There are some less-detailed maps available, but I have yet to see one. Instead, we were guided by Gyalbo's memory and walked in whichever direction he pointed. Apart from the first 4 hours of hiking on Day 1, there was rarely a path to follow. We mostly bushwhacked, khud-climbed, scrambled, and butt-slid our way up and down the hillsides. This was frustrating at times - it's difficult to enjoy the scenery when you have to focus so intently on footwork and have constant visions of tumbling to your death - but also invigorating to feel like a kid scrambling around.

I was surprised at how little we moved camps. We spent many days at each camp to acclimate and seemed to do fewer days of walking than I expected. However, that's not to say it was easy. On "rest days" we often did day hikes that were more difficult than expected due to altitude gain. I was particularly thankful for the rest days at the high camps, as they conveniently corresponded with my fight against dysentery and offered a chance to recover before summiting.

The summit is indeed the haziest day in my memory. My head was clouded with both altitude and exhaustion, and I have very few photos of the day due to the difficulties of managing to take out a camera while holding onto ropes for dear life.

The technical skills needed for the trip were difficult for me to imagine and thus it is impossible for me to decide if they met my expectations or not. While the peak was called a "walking peak" it would have been nearly impossible for a group such as ours to summit with nothing more than our two legs. Instead, we relied heavily on ropes, harnesses, and jumars to safely get us to the top. We traversed a plethora of 50-60 degree slopes, many of which I lovingly referred to as icy slopes of doom. I'm afraid of rock climbing, but this ice wall climbing was surprisingly fun. Along with the rope equipment, we donned Koflach snow boots, gators, and cramp-ons (which, in my humble opinion, are tied with jumars for the best mountaineering invention of all time).

My health, apart from the short bout with dysentery, was great. It was fun (and heartening, haha) to monitor my heart rate as we gained elevation. I also got the chance to check my blood pressure at 14600ft and oxygen level at 17000ft, which are both good indications on how well a body acclimates. While my oxygen level was merely average, my BP and heart rate were excellent. As far as battle wounds, I walked away the least scathed by far. While others are peeling off layers of sun- and wind-burned skin and dressing minor cuts and bruises, I left with a tiny sunburn on the underside of my nose (due to snow reflection) and a cut about 1mm in length from absent-mindedly walking into a helmet that was swinging from a friend's backpack on the last day. The group was joking that it looked like I went to a spa rather than climbed a mountain.

Overall, it was a trip of immeasurable value. I am so thankful to Woodstock, the Hanifls, and of course our fearless leader, Kutty, for giving us this opportunity. Enough words, the pictures can do some talking:

The Pass on Day 1 at 11100ft. Looking down 
towards the valley we would soon be entering.

Forest Camp (9600ft) with the high ridge we traversed 
earlier in the background.

Taking shelter from the rain under a huge boulder at Forest Camp.

Precarious landslide crossing on our way to Base Camp.

Passing through a stand of Paper Birches on our way to Base Camp!

Trail? Literally pulling ourselves through thick bushes with pure arm strength.

Morning Yoga session at Base Camp (12400ft).

Kutty sharing wisdom at Base Camp.

Having fun on the frozen river above Base Camp.

Abe learning the art of jumaring.

A Bharal (blue sheep) camouflaged on the snow.

The shephard family that startled me at Base Camp. They were
throwing stones at the bharal near our camp.

The Shephard's kids giddy with excitement about
inheriting a chocolate bar from our group.

Zach looking like a shephard as he
 contemplates the cliffs at Base Camp.

Moonsoon clouds in the valley at Base Camp.

A clear morning with the elusive snow peaks at Base Camp.

A cook making breakfast with the
Advanced Base Camp ridge looming behind.

Ady, Priya, and Kate showing off their snow gear:
Ice axes, gators, and snowboots.

The steep traverse up to Advanced Base Camp. 

Porters watching the world go by from Advanced Base Camp.

The last few meters of the snowy, steep incline to Advanced Base Camp.

Steve taking a break on the snowy approach to Advanced Base Camp.

The ladies' makeshift toilet has a pretty
nice view at Advanced Base Camp (14600ft)!

Enjoying the sunset above the monsoon clouds at Advanced Base Camp.

More of the sunset at Advanced Base Camp.
The peaks in the distance are roughly the height of Bandarpunch!

Sunrise at Advanced Base Camp

A day hike towards the Summit Camp.
Bandarpunch peaking out over the horizon.

The glacial ice falls (i.e. ridiculously intimidating wall of ice) with
Bandarpunch behind. If you look really really really closely there
are a few people setting up ropes for us in the upper right.
Don't strain your eyes - they are really tiny. 

Glacial lake (or "tarn") in the glacial bowl below the ice falls featured above.

Kutty in action

360 view from the glacial bowl. Apologies for the 
bad zooming - it was too sunny to actually see anything on the camera!

Kutty sharing information about glaciers. 

Group photo in front of the ice falls and Bandarpunch.

Rope work up the ice fall.

A flat part on the ice falls.

Stumbling upon Summit Camp in the dense fog (17000ft).

Reaching Summit Camp. It felt like we were walking on the moon!

The skies cleared at Summit Camp and gave way 
to a gorgeous view, including the Bandarpunch peak!

The view from our tent at Summit Camp.

Narrow, but deep, crevasses like this were
plentiful near Summit Camp.

Summit Camp below Bandarpunch!

Feeling small against the backdrop of Himalayan peaks at Summit Camp.

Summit Day: We trudged uphill for hours with little
indication of what progress had been made.

Me and my trusty ice axe around day break. 

Taeyoung proudly revealing the South Korean flag on the summit.

Me on the summit of Bandarpunch at 20722ft.
(Yes, I am in ALL of my clothes including two jackets!)

The last group reaching the summit. Those arms
were out-stretched for about 10 minutes!

 The final 20 meters of relatively flat walking was a 
killer - this gives you a sense of how ridiculously exhausted and 
slow-moving we all were.

Our leader, Kutty, after he fell to his knees upon reaching 
the summit, and a half-hearted panoramic of the 
summit (I was too exhausted/dizzy to stand up and 
get a proper panoramic!). 

Heading down from the summit. This was one of the scariest
parts of the trip for me.

The snow conditions changed while we were at Summit Camp and
left our route home plagued with scary crevasses!

Gyalbo probing for a safe path across a complex network of crevasses. 

Kutty carefully crossing on a narrow path between crevasses. 

Back down the ice falls. 

The Okies rockin' the descent down the ice falls.

Me in the whole get-up (minus the helmet). 

More hopping across crevasses in the glacial bowl below the ice falls.

The comic relief of the trip. This man's sole
responsibility is to manage the satellite phone, which
comes in its own suitcase! He had a tendency to
shout very loudly in Hindi and ended every
sentence with "oh-wa" (his version of "over").

Gyalbo chatting with a shephard on the last day of hiking.

The shephard's house with kids peering out. 

For those who are interested, here is the actual itinerary:

June 15: Leave Mussoorie, arrive at NIM in Uttarkashi (5 hour drive north)
June 16: Relax at NIM - pick up mountaineering gear, learn some knots
June 17: 3 hour bus ride to Suki army base where we spent the night camping surrounded by barbed wire and tall fences. Highlight: playing volleyball with the military dudes/trekking cooks.
June 18: Day 1 of hiking! Started at 8600 ft, climbed to a pass at 11100ft, and back down to Forest Camp (9600ft).
June 19: Day 2 of hiking: Forest Camp (9600ft) to Base Camp (12400ft)
June 20: Base Camp: Morning hike halfway up to Advanced Base Camp to help acclimate.
June 21: Base Camp: Morning class on snow skills - ice axes, self-arrests, jumaring, etc. Very fun!
June 22: Base Camp: "Load-ferry" our gear up to Advanced Base Camp, but walk back down to sleep
June 23: Base Camp (12400ft) to Advanced Base Camp (14600ft) - a precariously steep route with the first rope work of the trip
June 24: Advanced Base Camp: Morning hike halfway up to Summit Camp (glacial bowl)
June 25: Advanced Base Camp: Rest day (more like "Dysentery Day" for me!)
June 26: Advanced Base Camp (14600ft) to Summit Camp (17000ft) - completely in snow, lots of technical rope work.
June 27: Summit Camp: First Summit Attempt. Turned around shortly after 2am due to weather and spent the day sleeping, eating, and resting.
June 28: Summit Camp: Second Summit Attempt. Left around 2am, summited around 11am, returned by 6pm. A long 16-hour day of exhaustion.
June 29: Summit Camp (17000ft) to Base Camp (12400ft).
June 30: Base Camp: rest day
July 1: Base Camp (12400ft) to Military Camp (82000ft)
July 2: Military Camp to NIM to Mussoorie!


Nicole Suzanne Farley said...

OH NAN! What an awesome post, I'm so glad you posted so many pictures AND videos! What a trip, I can hardly believe so many of you guys did it! While my heart is aching a bit to not have been there, I'm SO excited that you guys got this opportunity and TOTALLY rocked it. :) Good one friend!

Anonymous said...


Bill Kinzie said...

Nan! What an adventure to cherish all your life!! This is just happy you completed the climb and that the group got up and back safely in such unmapped territory. Great pictures and a blog that will be read by many who love the high mountains.
Get a good rest and keep on adventuring. Blessings! Bill K.

beki said...

Unbelievable! Well done Nan!! I'm amazed at your courage and accomplishment. :) Love this entry.

Anonymous said...

These pictures are breathe taking!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog...Who had arranged all the expedition logistics for you guys? Can you give anybody's number so that we can contact them for arranging expedtion for us?

Dhanender Singh Negi said...

Hi, I'm also a mountaineer and arrange High Altitude Mountain trekking Expeditions in the great Himalayas.
visit my website or mail me at:

Anonymous said...

Congrats to all. Nice to see people finally climbing bandarpunch. I used to trek and climbed this place in 1981 with one forest guide called Tek singh. Only two of us. It was before the ITBP was setup and I was in SJA dehradun. Sanjay mandal

man said...

Hello every body who want trekking Expedition in Garhwal region please contact us for Local support , i we are based at Uttarkashi.


muckyfinger said...

My word!This is some excellent documentation and great great photos - I might just give this a shot this year!

Thank you!

Unknown said...

great account !

Andy Chapman said...

Hi, would it be possible to use some of your photos (with full credit of course) for a book I'm writing about one of the first people to climb baunderpunch, Bob Leakey. I can't offer money(as proceeds will go to charity) but you can have a warm fuzzy feeling.....

Pradeep Sarkar said...

Hi, I am planning for bandarpunch expedition,if you give me how many Equipment used for centrally then it will be easy for me. Thank you.