Mt. Nun (7,135M)
Zanskar Valley, Ladakh
(24th July – 16th August 2021)
“It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”.
I don’t know what Mark Twight said this in context to and when. However, I couldn’t find a phrase that would better define our climb to the top of Mt. Nun in the summer of 2021. From a long list of defining words, we could use to describe our expedition, a few that come to mind are brutal, thorny, cold, testing, spectacular, mighty, and absolute fun. A lot is to be said about the expedition, but the one thing we definitely cannot claim was that it was a smooth sailing ship. But for a trip rife with mishappenings brought on by people, circumstances, and mischievous weather, the climb was magic – made so by the terrain, the exhilaration brought on by the challenge, and the imposing personality of the mountain itself! The fact that it also was a resounding success was most certainly an add-on.
Himalayas are an inexhaustible treasure house to which devotees of mountaineering have come for years to quench their thirst for exciting challenges. Amongst the many discovered and countless undiscovered peaks, stands Mt. Nun rising into the skies at an impressive height of 7135M. First scaled way back in 1953, it is a technical climb that requires navigating difficult terrain in extreme cold with throes of violent winds being a bully - pushing you around in all directions. Mt. Nun is the culmination of the Nun Kun mountain massif which comprises of two peaks: Mt. Nun, 7,135M, and its little shorter twin Mt. Kun, 7,077M separated from each other by a plateau around 4 km long. The massif is located near the Suru valley, about 250 km east of Srinagar.
The story of this expedition started way back in the climbing season of 2019, the year Bikat Adventures made it to Mt. Nun for the first time. The success of that climb gave us the courage to try this again with a much larger team which was seventeen members strong - 9 climbers, 1 Expedition Leader, a Deputy Leader, a coordinator, and a team of 5 Sherpas apart from the team that tirelessly worked in the background to make this expedition a reality.
A bit elusive at first, you can feel the mighty presence of the highest peak in the Zanskar Valley of Ladakh region, as soon as you set off on the road to Tangol. On its first appearance, this massive peak of 7135M makes its presence known to you, not very subtly. The way it elegantly stands in its milk-white robe against the barren landscape of Suru valley, it certainly knows how to stand out and own the view. On our entry into the valley, the first sight of the mountain was so captivating - we were hooked - and that's when we knew our journey had begun! The peak still looked inaccessible, however, – like a distant goal. The magnanimity of our task ahead had not hit us yet as we admired it from the warm, flower-scented valley. The warmth of the sun and the bursting colors of the flora of Suru Valley absorbed the presuppositions for the 15 days of cold mess that we were driving towards.
Although not the best, the weather forecast looked good. It suggested that we had a short but promising window to make our summit attempts. The climbers looked ready and assured after having faced intense heat, torrential rains, hailstorms and teething winds during their pre-expedition, acclimatization trek through Markha Valley. Meticulous with our planning and logistics, we had checked off everything on our dozen checklists of requirements for the 15 days to come. Everything was on schedule and looked well.
Until we reached Tangol – the head trail for this daunting undertaking.
Our first roadblock
According to plan, the team reached the village of Tangol by the afternoon of 1st August. We were then to leave for basecamp during the early hours of the next day. After a comfortable night, our last in warm beds with a roof over our head, for a very long time, each team member took an hour to get ready and stuff their 15kg backpacks with all that was required from there on. Lunches were packed for the long route ahead, the team was ready to leave, we had just finished a filling breakfast meal and topped our bottles with water when the Expedition Leader assembled everyone to deliver the news. We had hit our first day of delay. Due to porters canceling at the last hour, we were short of support to reach all our ration, equipment, tents, and other essentials which together weighed close to a whopping 850 kilos, to the basecamp. We needed a total of 45 porters. While the team scoured nearby villages to find replacements, they were met with little luck. After much duress, we could arrange for a few, who went in batches and some also made second rounds, to drop the stuff up to BC. A day of delay so early on in an expedition was a cause for concern, but nothing we couldn’t make up for in the days to come. And, so, onwards we went towards the basecamp on 3rd of August.
The route to the basecamp takes you through small villages rich with lush green fields bordered with pink flowers and locals running up and down the steep slopes like it was an Olympic field. Cattle scattered around the landscape, you soon leave the geometric greens behind at the foothills of the mountain and enter the world of browns on narrow shepherd trails– rocks, boulders, and mud – extremely dry but rich in flowers of all colors growing out in tufts from the cracks between the land. After a steep ascends, you descend down into a much chillier valley – a bit more rustic than the one we left behind. On crossing miles of moraine and glaciers, we make it to the bottom of the waterfalls. This last leg of the climb is steep and slippery made of loose rocks and scree. The basecamp rests waiting for us at the top of the waterfall. You’d think you’d be able to see the peak from here, but you’d be wrong. The ranges around help distract your mind with their beauty, though, and imbibe in you a little more patience till you can get your first look at this non-busy peak, up-close. Basecamp lies at the head of the Shafat glacier which is a 14kms long glacier, 85 km south to Kargil to the east and 294 km from Srinagar on the right side of the Kargil Zanskar road near the border. Given that this is a border area and a strategic region for the armed forces, satellite phones are not allowed. This means that the team was cut off from the rest of the world. To get to the closest point from where communication was possible was at least 3 hours away. We were pretty much on our own from here on. The fact that we had amongst us, within the team of climbers, a fully-equipped emergency doctor, helped calm the other team member’s nerves a bit. The 7 km from Tangol to the base camp took the team close to 7 hours to cover.
A lot was to be achieved during our time at base camp. From the distribution and setting up of all the gear to technical training and practice on the icy slopes around the basecamp. But before then, we had the entire day to rest our bodies and acclimatize to the terrain, altitude, and temperature of the base camp which lay at 4500M – a height gain of approximately 800M from Tangol.
Another day goes by
It was a merry first day since all the team members made it to the basecamp without much difficulty. By now the team had found its rhythm and team members had synchronized their pace so that we were walking as a single unit. The next day started with offering prayers to the mountain Gods for allowing us to be there and to seek blessings of the winds for the success of the climb – as is the ritual. Following this, we were to climb to higher grounds in order to brush up on our technical skills and get comfortable with our gear. Bad weather prevented us from gaining enough height but we did use our time to get our basics right on some lesser slopes close to the campsite. This cost us another day of practicing in actual ice – worrisome but not catastrophic, however. Based on our last update, the weather was to be unsuitable for a climb from 11th to 16th of August. We still had a good window. There were very little doubts, if any, amongst the team, that we would make it well within time. Fifth of August, then, was used to get acquainted with our trail upwards, towards Camp 1. We would be climbing this patch plenty of times all through the expedition. The first stretch included climbing two hours of a steep rocky slope on crossing the river over to the other side of the camps. This stretch was full of boulders and rocks but has a pretty well-laid out trail which made the ascend a little less grim. The two-hour climb takes you up the mountain ridge and down to the other side which requires walking on massive boulders – a stretch to be cautious on till we make it to something called a ‘Crampon Point’. This infamous point is an enormous rock with a little opening at the bottom, making it a perfect place to store all our equipment to protect it from the rain and from being blown away by angry winds. This is where we leave all our stuff so we don’t have to carry the extra weight each time. Consider it the green room for your trek – this is where we put all our gear on and get ready for the actual climb. The start of the glacier, we walk towards the 300M ice wall which is the most difficult section between base camp and camp 1. For training purposes, we climb to the foot of the ice wall, at an altitude of 5050M, and fix our ropes. You’d think that now the mountain would be kind enough to present itself to you, but you’d still be wrong.
A little more confident after our two-hour practice run ascending and descending on actual ice, the climbers return to basecamp happy and very famished. All the equipment is stored at Crampon Point for the next day's climb.
An addition of one to the stack
Now that we were settled at base camp, properly acclimatized, in possession of all our technical gear, and confident on how to use them in the said terrain, we were to begin our rotation rounds between camps. The success of any high-altitude climb rests on how well the body is acclimatized to the environment. The physiological factors related to altitude are complex but the short of it is that the body needs time to adapt to the changes in the environment and enough time to learn how to draw the required amount of oxygen from the continuously thinning air. Proper acclimatization dictates that we make multiple rounds between camps where you climb high, sleep low and then shift base to higher ground. This was exactly the plan and we were all set to follow the clearly defined guidelines for proper acclimatization. Sixth of August was reserved for load ferry to Camp 1. It would be the first day to put to test the skills we had practiced and see how we actually perform. The 300M wall of 75 degrees was the most crucial section of the climb which the climbers were prepping for mentally for the last two days. We distributed the ration for high camps amongst all the climbers, which they would carry up to Camp 1 in addition to their personal belongings. This meant that we would also be carrying heavy loads on very steep slopes riddled with wide and open crevasses wearing boots that weigh 5 kgs. It seemed a bit overwhelming but equally exciting. Everything was ready, the ration was distributed, bags were packed and we were all set to take on the challenge of our first actual technical climb in the expedition – ready to test ourselves on the slopes early next morning. The team, however, woke up to bad weather with a complete whiteout and light snowfall. We waited for an hour for the weather to clear out, post which we called off the climb for the day and pushed it to the 7th of August, instead. A loss of another day. Our schedule was starting to look a bit too packed now.
By now, we had gathered that we had very short windows of clear weather each day in which we needed to cover the long and arduous distances between camps. It was going to be a difficult affair. On 7th of August, the team left base camp as early as 7 in the morning for load ferry – heavy with personal gear plus the divided ration in their sacks. And we followed the same ritual as the first day – two hours to Crampon Point, gear up, walk up the icy slopes onto the massive ice wall. While the rest of the climb seemed a bit easier than the first time, the ice wall was the real test for today.
The Sherpas had already fixed ropes on the route the day before. All we needed to do was follow the ropes up the slope. This seemed a bit harder than it sounds for the massive, open crevasses and the smaller, hidden ones - plus the weight on the back making it harder still to climb the steep gradient of hard ice on the wall. The 300M of ice wall took the team close to 2.5 hours to cross. After the first wall, there was an additional patch of steep ice which needed to be navigated. The difficult part was shifting your ascender and safety between anchors standing on almost vertical, unstable ice with wide openings and snow bridges on all your sides.
Once we crossed the ice wall and its annex, the slopes get a bit gentler but the snow gets a little softer. We turn to the right, jump over a few crevasses and reach the point where the slope is now at close to 30 degrees. This is the end of the fixed rope section and the start of the land of hidden crevasses. After falling into a few, we learned to use our ice ax to warn us of the open cracks hidden by the freshly fallen snow. An hour of climb on this gradient brought us to a massive open field of snow. We’d thought we’d get our first glimpse of the mountain NOW, but as it turned out, the wait was still not over. We were met with high-speed winds, whiteout, and heavy snowfall which swallowed the peaks. Mt. Nun was proving to be a bit shyer than we’d imagined! After six and a half hours, the team reached the location of Camp 1 which was bang in the middle of the 4kms wide snowfield. We emptied our loads and dumped it at the campsite in a way that we’d still find it when we came back the next day. Since the weather was worsening, we left as soon as possible without getting a look at the peak. The climb down through the same route, this time downwards on the 75-degree ice wall, took the team close to 3 hours. The day was a success.
Maybe we would now fall back on schedule. Or maybe not.
Can we afford to lose one more day?
The night of 7th of August was one of heated debate and divided opinions. According to current weather conditions and the new schedule, we were to take a rest at BC the next day, instead of shifting base to Camp 1. Also, the Sherpas needed the day to open the route between Camp 1 and Camp 2 along with load ferry which didn’t happen the day before due to unstable weather. So, according to the new plan, we would advance to higher camps without the usual rotational rounds for proper acclimatization. This meant that we only had one night for our summit attempt without the possibility of a repeat attempt in case of unfavorable conditions. It also meant that we would be moving between camps without a break – which, some team members were worried is as good as calling the expedition off. Some of the climber’s concerns were around acclimatization, no time for adequate rest, and bleak chances of a successful summit in case we encounter even a single day of bad weather. This was especially hard to process since bad weather had been a constant and loyal companion all through our expedition. Loss of each day, now, seemed to add up pushing us against a tight rope – causing discord within the group. Well, that’s no surprise since tempers are tried easily at high-altitude!
After much debate on trying to find alternatives to come to a mutually agreeable plan, the best common ground was to carry ration for an extra day so that we may have our second summit attempt – or at least the possibility for it.
With rifts and nagging doubts regarding the success of the expedition, the climbers pushed on the next day to shift base to Camp 1. Since it was familiar territory, it seemed a bit easier this time around. We made it to Camp 1 within 5 hours, exactly in time for a hot lunch which was just what the team needed at 5500M with icy winds knocking on their tents waiting to be let in. The glee, however, came from having witnessed the mountain we were to climb, after such a long wait. It was a sight that could evoke nothing short of an extreme triumph. Mt. Nun lay right in front of us, silently gazing at its visitors. The sight of the three peaks, Nun, Kun, and Pinnacle, standing shoulder to shoulder was a sight we are likely to remember for a long time to come. The magnanimity of the task at hand finally became a reality. At first glance, you start to regard the mountain as a living, breathing entity with a strong individual identity. You realize you are in the presence of power and sheer force. This was a day etched in our memory forever. This was August 9th.
An extra night at Camp 2
By the next day, Sherpas had opened the route between Camp 1 and 2. This was, as we would find out through the day, the hardest day of the entire expedition. The route between Camp 1 and Camp 2 was a straight ascent, through and through, with slopes between 60-70 degrees.
The entire stretch of the climb, which was a height gain of 600M from Camp 1, took an average of 9 hours for the climbers, with 2 participants arriving the campsite at the mark of 11 hours. The most difficult part of the climb was navigating large sections of boulders and rocks with crampons on. Camp 2 is at an altitude of 6100M. Nothing could have prepared us for the extreme exhaustion we felt during that climb so no one complained when we decided to stay an extra night on Camp 2 – the weather was once again throwing a bit of a tantrum. Also, one of the team members had developed symptoms resembling the first stages of frostbite in addition to a massive drop in her SpO2 levels. An extra day at Camp 2 gave her the opportunity to recover from her condition and an increased chance for her to proceed to higher camps. But it also meant that we had lost yet another day. Now, our date for the summit push overlapped with dates on which bad weather with strong winds of 50 km/hr was predicted.
All these conditions aside, Camp 2 was absolutely mesmerizing. While Mt. Nun has some of the most beautiful and the most thrilling high-altitude campsites - of the three, Camp 2 is our absolute favorite. It gives you the drama of a 007 film while creating the humor of a Black Jack movie. Resting precariously on a sloped and narrow ridge of a high pinnacle, tents on Camp 2 are literally dangling in the air. With an impossible slope on one side and a direct 800M drop on the other, even to answer nature's call, we had to anchor themselves to the rope for safety. However, whoever dared to look up could vouch for the fact that the campsite gave them some of the best morning and evening views they had ever witnessed.
With the rest of the world hidden below clouds and a crack in the sky that added the orange to the otherwise white landscape is nothing short of magical. The sunlight on Mt. Nun from Camp 2, gives it a God-like halo captivating you further. If you are a proponent of dangerous love, everything about Camp 2 screams romance! Camp 2 gives you such spectacular sights that the drama and thrill might just be bigger than the summit itself. The cloud show is amazing sitting at that height with an unobstructed view of the snowfield below. The dance of shadows of the clouds on the massive snowfield is one show you definitely want front-row seats to!
So, after a day of rest at the hanging camp – we bid adieu to our favorite campsite to move towards the Summit camp which is at an altitude of 6400M. It was to be a 300M height gain which was not too taxing after having endured the daunting slopes to reach Camp 2. After the initial steep descent from Camp 2, the rest of the route was mostly snow dunes which went up and down at a gradient of not more than 40 degrees.
Camp 3 was also stationed in the middle of a snowfield. The climber whose SpO2 level had dropped was doing much better with her blood oxygen levels but was still struggling with chill blain. Surprisingly enough, although there were minor health issues, all the other team members who made it to Camp 3 were healthy and of sound mind. This put to rest some of our concerns around acclimatization and renewed our motivation to carry ourselves through to the summit and back.
The Final Push
Now with a total of five days of delay, the night of 12th August was the big night we had all been waiting for. We went to bed in the evening of the 12th, praying to the mountain for fair weather. To the team’s surprise and delight, they woke up to a clear, star-studded night. The menacing clouds were in hiding; the winds felt a bit more rested, too. We started our climb at 11:30 PM. All the combined anxiety and tension the team had been carrying with them in their packs seemed to dissolve into the calm of the night with everyone focusing just on their climb and the goal ahead. We access the west ridge from Summit camp, which involves traversing on 40-60 degree ice after which the gradient comes down to 40-50 degrees. The climb is exhausting and takes massive mental acumen to complete. The last section with large boulders is especially tricky because of the crampons and because it is exceptionally hard to carry your weight to pull yourself over the massive boulders after the extreme physical and mental fatigue from the 7 straight hours of ascent. Once the boulders are crossed, however, there is only around 50M more to get to the summit. All our climbers who started from Camp 3, except one, made it to the summit by 08:20 AM. We were pumped – although, mildly excited may be a more accurate description! One of the team members had to turn back within the first hour of starting the climb. He had a bad case of shivers and had developed second-stage hypothermia. The Expedition Leader thought it wise for him to abandon his attempt and return to summit camp. On examining the severity of the team member’s condition, our Expedition Leader decided to accompany him down to summit camp, took the necessary steps to get his body temperature back to normal and then descended down with him to BC as soon as was possible.
The rest of the team had made it successfully, against all odds. There were a lot of times during the expedition when we thought this is all going to fall through, but the team showed a lot of patience and plenty of perseverance, driven by their own inner resources, resulting in the success of the climb. However, reaching the summit is only half a victory. The real climb ends when all the climbers reach safely back to BC. And, thus, began the second leg of the adventure – descending the equally menacing slopes. One of our climbers was showing symptoms of AMS in addition to snow blindness. While it was hard to get him down safely with progressively deteriorating vision, the rest of the climbers made it down to the safety of their tents at summit camp by 12:40 PM. After spending a night here, we would leave early the next day to start our long journey down to base camp through Camp 2 and Camp 1. We were to walk gruelingly long distances and lose close to 2000M of altitude today. Whilst everyone else left the warmth of their tents to walk into the haze of the whiteout, by 09:00 AM on 14th of August, the climber who had developed snow blindness had, now, lost complete vision. For the safety of the climber, it was decided that he not leave with the team but wait behind till he regains some of his vision. Head Sherpa and our Deputy Expedition Leader waited back with him at Camp 3.
The trio started their descend by 03:00 PM – six hours after the initial team had left. The weather had now worsened since morning which meant that they had to descend in calf-deep snow which made it doubly difficult and extremely tiring. Whilst the rest of the team reached base camp by 7 PM, the trio left behind made it safely down by 11 PM. The doctor at base camp had turned the site into a makeshift hospital. He examined and treated the wounds and injuries of all the climbers plus the Sherpas plus the Deputy Expedition Leader who had a severe case of shoe bite and snow burns. The doctor’s presence there was nothing short of a blessing since any other source to receive even the most basic medical attention was hours away at Kargil.
In retrospect: Some learning bigger than the mountain itself
The Butterfly Effect: Because of the unpredictable nature of mountains which require you to constantly think on your feet, planning these expeditions is a formidable business that might even make the climb seem like the easiest bit. In these strange and beautiful lands where we measure distances in meters, it is the minor events in the life of an expedition – the sum of which writes the end of the story. Each time we got delayed by a day, we lessened our chances of making it to the summit. This was true especially since weather predictions pointed to a week-long period during which the peak would remain unclimbable. Each misfortune was not added to the previous one, but multiplied by it and hence needed to be accounted for to plan the future course of action. While the climbers were experienced and adequately prepared for the challenge at hand, it seemed that the forces of nature were conspiring against them. Although it turned out great in the end, the team did have to climb to higher camps without proper acclimatization as planned.
The Ideological Divide: We account for the weight we carry in our sacks but forget to count in the weight of the collective energy of the team – a sound team helps reduce that weight whereas conflicts and friction between team members only make it heavier. The weight of which we carry all the way to the top and back. The ideological divide, that between ‘every person for themselves’ versus ‘the fellowship of the rope’ weakened the collective spirit of the team. While most ascribed to the latter, a few resorted to the former leading to unnecessary, detrimental, and avoidable circumstances. In the mountains, a group is bigger than an individual.
Patience, tolerance, and humility: Mt. Nun is known for its technical climb, patches of difficult rock and ice negotiations, and an overall challenging terrain in addition to unpredictable weather conditions. While these are known devils during the climb, the skills that can actually determine the success of an expedition are a part of each climber’s personality. While technical skills can be learned and mastered, forbearance, tolerance and self-restraint are some of the true markers of a good climbing team in high-altitude expeditions. It is not the temperance of climbers in the periods of ‘doing’ but those of ‘non- doing’ that separates a good climber from a bad one. We love expeditions because they make transparent the strength of every climber's character - the difficulty of the task introduces you to a different version of yourself and how you handle that is the true test you put yourself through. Getting to the summit is only a part of the challenge - to measure your own self in the face of something extreme is the actual challenge the mountain throws at you!
Eight out of eleven climbers in our expedition made it to the summit of Mt. Nun in the summer of 2021 – eleven of eleven climbers made it down healthy and safe. Our climb to the highest peak of the Zanskar Range was an intensely human story that reveals the emotions of each person in great moments of trial and triumph. While there might have been disagreements and the winds didn’t always sway us in the right direction, the one thing that we had in common was that taking on challenges as extreme as Nun made all our hearts sing. Even when the rigors of the actual climb were grueling, each climber drew from the pool of their inner resources and persevered to continue climbing despite all odds. And although it wasn’t always the best of circumstances, the climb itself was exceptional which is to say:
“It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”.