As recently reported, a team of young British alpinists consisting of Uisdean Hawthorn, Ben Silvestre and Pete Graham established a new line up Arjuna South West Pillar (6100m) in the Indian Kishtwar Himalaya, which they have named Gandiva (1400m E3/5.11 M5). We have managed to gather more information on the route and their trip since the team arrived back in the UK.
In some respects the trip was a bit last minute, Ben admitted, since he and Pete had been unsure of what aim for this year. Ben told us: 'I was getting a bit sick of losing my accumulated rock fitness through Alpine climbing every year, and had planned to spend the first third of the year in Spain with my girlfriend Tessa, and then spend the summer climbing around Britain. Pete was having similar thoughts, but then as the grant application deadlines approached in January, I panicked and started researching objectives furiously.'
Eventually, having dissuaded Ben from a couple of other objectives, Mick Fowler pointed the pair towards Arjuna. Ben contacted American Jeff Shapiro, who had been in the area last year when he climbed the south face of Brammah II. 'When we saw a photo of the SW Pillar,' said Ben, 'we knew we had an objective. Aesthetically perfect, it would also put the summer of rock climbing to good use.' Having enjoyed climbing in a three with Will Harris in Alaska last year, Pete and Ben asked him if he'd like to come along, 'but sadly Will has decided to sacrifice his personal climbing in favour of a BMG badge,' said Ben, so they asked Uisdean if he'd be keen, 'and we had our team,' he explained. Between the three climbers, Ben and Pete had previously made impressive ascents in the Alps, Patagonia and Alaska, with Uisdean climbing alongside Pete in Patagonia and in Alaska with Tom Livingstone.
Arjuna, which lies in the Kijai Nala, has seen relatively few ascents over the years. In 1981, a Polish group climbed Arjuna's south summit (ca. 6100m) via the southeast ridge. In 1983, another Polish expedition climbed the west face of Arjuna's south summit in alpine-style, while a second team climbed the central pillar of the west face to reach Arjuna's main summit, fixing the lower 500m of the climb. In 2017, a Slovenian team comprising Urban Novak, Marko Prezelj and Ales Cesen established another new, 1400m line on Arjuna's west face, naming it All or Nothing (ED+ M7+ WI5+ A0). It was the second ascent of the summit and the first in alpine style.
This being the team's first Himalayan trip, the logistics were understandably daunting. They decided to use Kaushal Desai of Above14000ft as their agent, who organised Jeff's trip, and has organised many of Mick's trips to India. 'Both he and Mick were extremely helpful with our endless planning questions, and we are extremely grateful to both of them,' Ben said.
Finally, in early September, it was time to leave. The group arrived in Delhi on September 12, attended an IMF briefing in which it was made clear that rescues would be effectually redundant in the area, and then travelled to Manali with their Liaison Officer, Tara. 'After stopping in a service station and eating the best curry of our lives, we began to realise that we were in for a month of fantastic food,' Ben said, 'but we were still really quite unprepared for what was to come.' Ben sent in the following trip report to divulge the finer details of their adventure.
We left Manali with a band of porters and two trucks. It was two days' drive to the road head, the first day over the Rhotang pass. This went smoothly enough and we arrived in Udaipur early enough to visit a small Buddhist temple, which housed the most incredible wood carvings I've ever seen. We then enjoyed what would be our final beers for a month, and ate well. The following day the road became a lot worse, and we were rocked around at an average of 20mph, often with a huge precipice frighteningly close. Eventually we arrived in Gulabgargh, happy to have survived the drive, and our LO gathered more porters whilst we enjoyed more excellent food.
The next morning a short drive took us to the road head, and an exciting river crossing in a wooden box attached to tensioned steel cables. From the other side of the river it was three days walk up the steep sided valley of the Kijai Nullah. This was extremely pleasant, and very relaxed given the disparity between our and the porters' loads. They even taught us how to make hashish by rolling marijuana plants in our hands, which later proved very helpful in reducing our 'stoke' and ensured that we didn't attempt the route too early. Eventually we arrived at BC, a lush little meadow high above the lower glacier, and we wandered round the corner for our first sight of the mountain. We weren't disappointed, and straight away we knew it would be a good one.
The following day we rested, and settled into BC. Our cook Vivek, and his assistant Perkash, had some serious skills, and we began to realise that we would be eating like kings for the duration of the expedition. Three three course meals a day was fairly standard, typically curry of the highest order, although pizzas and birthday cakes were on the menu too. Never did we manage to finish everything they had prepared. Readjusting to normality in this regard will be difficult.
The next day we packed some gear into some bags and walked up the glacier to get a closer look. We stashed some gear at 4400m, where we were starting to feel the altitude, and looking through binoculars we were disappointed to see that a section near the top of the pillar looked highly improbable. But we had lots of time and figured we could try something else if an attempt on the pillar failed. The rock seemed good at least.
Over the next week we figured out a passage to the upper glacier, and then set to acclimatising on an easy angled ridge near camp. It would have been nice to acclimatise nearer to Arjuna, but it was approximately 11km to the upper glacier, for barely any height gain, and we thought it prudent to conserve energy. We managed to camp at 5000m for two nights, and walked up to around 5300m, sadly failing to reach the summit due to some exceptionally loose rock, which would have been awkward to descend.
On our return to camp after a day of stashing gear on the upper glacier, there was a huge thunderstorm - the first bad weather of the trip - and we had to dig trenches to stop BC from flooding. This continued for a couple of days, but as it cleared the forecasts indicated a week long high pressure, and it became clear that our time was approaching. Sadly Pete got ill, and we had to wait a couple of days, but this only allowed the face to clear from the storm, and allowed Uisdean and I to sample the excellent bouldering around BC.
Finally it was time to go, and we left camp early with light bags, most of our gear already at the base of the route, at 4700m. We were fairly intimidated, so we brought a big rack in case we needed to aid sections, or rappel the route. We packed food for four days, and enough gas to melt water for six. Given the steepness of the rock and size of the packs, we chose to bring jumars for the seconds, the leader climbing on a single rope, with a tagline to haul his pack if necessary.
The following morning we left early and climbed some chossy ramps to access steep snow ramps, leading up to a notch at 5000m. This gave the start of the real rock climbing, and we were pleasantly surprised to find excellent, featured granite, leading up to the start of the arête. Six excellent pitches took us to a palatial bivy site at around 5300m, and Pete fixed another pitch to below a large corner whilst Uisdean cleared the ledge of stones. A comfortable night spooning in the Rick Graham Sufferbag V3.0, left us feeling ready for what looked like the steepest, blankest section. I took the lead, and the corner provided an excellent technical exercise. From the next belay it seemed as though the cracks would not link up, but the appearance of 'chicken head' protrusions on the faces made a continuation seem possible.
A traverse around the arête gave access to another crack, which lead up and back round the arête to the base of an intimidating chimney. Thankfully, this was avoided by climbing chicken heads on the right wall, in a fairly runout position, to gain a steep and strenuous hand crack. Above this, another traverse around the arête, in an extremely airy position, gave access to a full 60m pitch reminiscent of the Strand at Gogarth. We were all in disbelief at the quality of the climbing, though the seconds had to enjoy it in their imaginations, as they struggled with jumars and big bags. The Strand pitch gained easier angled ground and Uisdean led a few long pitches to a good bivy site near the top of the pillar at around 5800m.
Fortunately, this bivy site was exposed to some wind, and we had to spoon with all our might to keep warm that night. We left camp slowly the following morning, with Pete leading us to the top of the pillar in three pitches. From here we had to abseil 30m into a notch, and we wondered for a while whether to leave a rope fixed. Pete and I used this tactic in Alaska a couple of years ago, which reduces the commitment, but necessitates a descent by the same route. Eventually we decided that we could probably climb back up by aiding some thin cracks, if absolutely necessary, so we pulled the ropes and committed. Above us a headwall loomed, with some roofs blocking our view to what lay above. I took over and did a 30m pitch on excellent chicken heads to a short way below the roofs. There seemed to be a notch in the roofs, which I aimed for, pulling through on huge holds with all the exposure one could ask for. I stopped above to haul up my bag, change into my big boots, catch my breath - since we were entering the 6000m mark - and then led up snow to belay a short way above.
A long pitch on steep snow took us to a small, but sheltered bivy. The night was a lot warmer, and our fatigue made the much reduced size of the ledge seem fairly insignificant. We rose early and Uisdean did a couple of big traverse pitches to land us below the right hand of two 'horns', which dominated the summit area of the mountain. A steep and extremely strenuous mixed step guarded entry to the gully, which gave great ice climbing up to the summit ridge, and then the summit, in a further three pitches. We stayed there a long time (20mins?) and then began to descend off the back. About 12 abseils down an obvious icy gully landed us on a glacier, which we walked down in the moonlight, until a steepening demanded a further 5 abseils.
Arriving in a notch above a continuation gully, we stopped to brew up, eventually deciding that we were too tired to blindly stumble down the gully in the dark. We stopped for a short sleep, which turned out to be profoundly deep, and we were woken neither by the dawn, nor the Nalgene bottle which we failed to shut properly and which soaked our sleeping bags. We rose before the sun hit the gully however, and after a further 4 abseils (and much gratitude in our decision to wait for the light) we reached the snow cone we had ascended to begin with, and arrived straight back at our tent. A frenzy of eating, and extreme satisfaction in the balmy temperatures, allowed us to recuperate enough to carry our bags most of the way to BC that evening.
A further few days of eating lead to extreme laziness as PASS (post alpinism sloth syndrome) took over, and when we had to get our bags from up glacier this progressed into the more serious PADS (post alpinism diva syndrome) which caused us to bicker childishly for some time. Soon though it was departure time, and we descended the Kijai Nullah in a day, via some brew stops with the extremely friendly shepherds on the way down. The road back to Manali was no more pleasant, nor less frightening than the first time, but eventually we arrived in the old town and gorged ourselves on endless lager and curry, amongst droves of lost looking hippies.
We decided to call the route Gandiva, which is the name of a bow given to the hero Arjuna, by the creator God Brammah in Hindu mythology. We thought this a fitting name as the arête is bow shaped and faces towards the Brammah massif. The mountains in the Brammah/ Arjuna massif offer many more attractive problems, from simple ridges on snowy peaks, to easily accessible 200-800m rock climbs on perfect granite walls, to more serious alpine routes of the highest calibre. I suspect the area will become very popular in years to come, being comparable to the Torre valley in Patagonia, only more remote and at a higher altitude. There are sadly fewer empanadas, but the curries more than make up for it.
Massive thanks to everyone that supported us, these sorts of trips are impossible without the help of a lot of people. Primarily Mick Fowler, Jeff Shapiro, and Kaushal Desai for being a mine of information. Rob Smith for keeping us well up to date with weather forecasts. The BMC, The Mount Everest Foundation, The Montane Alpine Club Climbing fund, and The Austrian Alpine Club (UK) for their generous financial support. And Mountain Equipment, Fjallraven, Primus Equipment, Scarpa, Grivel, Summit to Eat, and GU Energy, and Crux for their sponsorship in food and equipment respectively.
We asked the team some more general questions about their trip...
For each of you, this was a first Himalayan expedition. What were your expectations?
BS: It was hard to know what to expect. On the one hand the rock looked excellent in the photos, but we weren't sure how it would be rock climbing at that altitude. Certainly we were quite intimidated and I wasn't really prepared to push the boat out too far. But the route appealed to us due to it being objectively safe, and we were quite happy with the knowledge that we could probably descend from any point without too many issues. All the same, by the time we left I felt pretty comfortable with the idea that we probably wouldn't get anything done, but I'd never been to India so I was keen for the cultural experience, and just up for exploring a really cool mountain range. That we found such excellent rock and managed to climb such a quality route was ultimately a huge bonus on an already amazing trip.
PG: I've wanted to climb in the Kistwar mountains for quite a while, having seen lots of photos of impressive pointy granite peaks, so I guess I had quite high expectations of the quality of the climbing and rock.
UH: I really didn't know what to expect to be honest, I was away in the Alps and Alaska when a lot of the organisation was being done. I didn't really pay much attention to details, I just said I would sort out the gear and Pete and Ben did the rest. I only looked at a map of the area for the first time a few days before we left as someone asked me to show them where we were going. It was really nice going into it with no expectations.
You had climbed with each other in various combinations before but only once as a three, and Uisdean replaced Will Harris. How was the team dynamic?
BS: The last couple of trips we've got into climbing as a three, for several reasons. The craic is way better for a start, and it is a lot safer in terms of on the wall rescue, and means you can either climb with lighter bags, or as in this case, take a larger safety net of equipment. We had climbed as a team on The Needle in winter a couple of seasons ago, so knew we were compatible, and had a good weekend at Gogarth earlier in the year, practising moving as a three with jumars and two single ropes. This proved to be a good idea, as needless to say jumaring at 6000m is a lot harder than at sea level, so it felt good to be slick and know what we were doing. Ultimately I think we worked well, Pete and I are an established partnership and Uisdean slipped into the dynamic well. Inevitably there were times of disagreement, but we were all willing to sacrifice our pride when necessary, and we made good decisions when it really counted.
PG: The Needle on the Shelterstone was long day out and a reasonably big tick for us all. We're all pretty similar in that we're easy-going people who just love being in the mountains and aren't into taking excessive risks. I was really happy with the way we worked together and made decisions on this latest trip, especially on the descent when we were all knackered as that's often the time when things can go wrong.
UH: Yeah, The Needle in winter a few years back was good fun. Pete and Ben are really easy-going, always work hard and don't make a fuss so it was easy to fit in and since I'm not as awkwardly tall as Will this meant we could fit in our two sleeping bags better.
Was the climbing and general feel of the trip much different to previous trips to Alaska and Patagonia? The scale seems bigger, but there are also more logistics, bureaucracy and money involved. Did the fact that you were in 'the Himalaya' affect you mentally?
BS: The climb felt like a consolidation of everything that came previously, which is usually the mark of a really good one. Wall skills learned on El Cap and Fitzroy, combined with experience at altitude in Alaska, and a dose of commitment from the Infinite Spur. Compared to the nearly 3000m long Infinite Spur, which was the last Alpine route I climbed, this felt a lot less committing, which helped me to talk myself through the harder sections of climbing. That said, the main cirque was a hugely intimidating place to be, and the first fortnight at BC was the most scared I have been on an expedition. I think to a large extent I let the fact that it was a 'Himalayan new route' get under my skin, and it was a huge relief once I confronted my demons and we got on with the climbing. It actually turned out to be a very type 1 experience for a lot of the route, and we were all pleasantly surprised by how little fear and loathing we had to overcome. The bureaucracy was weird and the logistics extensive, but it all ran very smoothly thanks to our excellent LO, and well organised expedition thanks to Kaushal.
PG: The weather in the Kishtwar mountains is far better than in Alaska or Patagonia so that makes things a fair bit easier. The higher altitude and short daylight hours and large temperature fluctuation are the main extra challenges. The fact that you use porters and have a cook and liason officer in base camp with you definitely gives the trip a vastly different feel as well. I don't think I've ever had a month eating as well as we did in base camp. Definitely a lot more luxurious than eating freeze dried meals in a blizzard in Alaska! The scale isn't really any different from Patagonia, just the elevation. And like Patagonia (and any other remote mountains) getting rescued isn't really an option; it's a serious place where you can't make mistakes, so you have to climb accordingly.
UH: Yes, for one thing life is generally a lot easier than Alaska mainly due to the fact that you don't have to live in the snow and you have people to cook for you. And we had about two days of bad weather on the whole trip, in Patagonia it's the other way around…if you're lucky! It didn't really affect me mentally. The fact that I've spent a fair bit of time in the mountains in the last 12 months really helped and the fact our route was completely safe from objective dangers took away that classic Himalayan fear of unknown dangers. Our liaison officer Tara was so good, if there were any problems whatsoever, we didn't have to deal with them ourselves.
Are each of you keen for another Himalayan trip in the next few years?
BS: I would like to return to the Himalaya but it won't be next year as I am getting married, which will take up the allotted funds!
PG: Definitely. Although there are a lot of other places I want to go as well so it might be a while before I return.
UH: Yes, definitely!