In mid-September 2018 I teamed up with Tim Elson, a member of the newly invigorated Alpine Climbing Group in the UK, for an expedition to the Brammah Glacier in Jammu and Kashmir, India. We'd identified two amazing looking objectives: the 1600m high North Spur of a 6100m peak called Flat Top, and the South Face of the Kishtwar Eiger, a peak various recorded as somewhere between 5600m and 6000m depending on the map.
The reality of going somewhere few if any tourists had visited for 25 years sank in on the third day of driving after leaving Manali. We were at our seventh army checkpoint, the third of the day, and once again our Liaison Officer, Tara, was patiently explaining what we were doing and where we were going. The group of soldiers manning the road block were confused and had phoned their commanding officer. We’d hoped to start the walk-in today, but it was looking less and less likely with every hour we spent at another checkpoint. It’d taken two and a half days of “exciting” driving from Manali to get to this point and we were eager to see the mountains.
Fast forward another two days and we’d finally past the last checkpoint, this time a remote police station where they fed us chai us while taking yet another copy of our passport details. A local herdsman and his two young boys showed us the best route to an area the locals called Sattarchin, where we would pitch our basecamp. It was perfect, an idyllic grassy area with a freshwater spring located at 3400m, half an hour’s walk below the terminal moraine. These days the locals used Sattarchin as summer pasture, but apparently it had once been the “terrorist cricket pitch”!
The Kishtwar Himalaya used to be relatively popular with climbers, with most of the main 6000m peaks having been climbed between 1960 and 1990. However, since the early 90’s it has been inaccessible due to the security risks associated with the Kashmiri insurgency. Since about 2010 the situation has stabilised, and climbers have been gradually returning to the eastern half of the range. The Brammah Glacier is on the western side of the range, where no expeditions had been since prior to the insurgency. When we researched the area, we could only find a few photos, but one obvious line stood out. The North Spur of Flat Top (6100m) looked amazing, 1600m of objectively safe mixed climbing up the middle of a steep unclimbed face on a mountain which had only one previous ascent.
Two days after arriving at basecamp a major storm arrived. Over 48 hours it dumped at least a metre of snow on the mountains, and torrential rain threatened to flood our basecamp. Later we heard that this same storm had flooded Manali town, several hundred kilometres away, and that the closest other expeditions cut their trips short due to the amount of fresh snow.
After acclimatising in a brief period of settled weather following the storm we set out for the North Spur of Flat Top. We had already ploughed a path through the deep snow up the glacier and stashed a tent and gear at 4400m during our acclimatisation. On the 2nd of October we set off from our high camp with 5 days food. We climbed the gully to the right of the spur before angling left onto the crest of the spur. The climbing was time consuming due to the meter of powder snow that was inexplicably adheared to everything that didn’t overhang. The harder pitches (up to M5) were a relief in many ways as not so much digging was required. After the first day we were pretty happy, having ascended the first 600m of the route (from 4500m to 5100m) and dug out a good tent site below a steep rock buttress on the left-hand side of the spur. On day two the snow got even worse and it took us seven hours to climb four pitches up the crest of the spur. Around 2pm it started dumping with wet sticky snow. After searching in vain for a tent site we were soaked. By the time we’d abseiled back to the previous night’s ledge it had 30cm of fresh snow on. The following morning the weather was good, but we realised that there was just too much fresh snow to get up the route. We retreated back down our line of ascent, making 11 abseils off a mixture of rock anchors and V-threads.
On the 7th of October we returned to our high camp planning to make a second attempt on the North Spur. Unfortunately, the weather forecast deteriorated, giving only a one-day window, so we changed plans for a single push attempt on the easier Northeast Ridge of Flat Top. Setting off at 2am we made good height gains initially, but our hopes of better snow conditions on a different aspect were dashed and our upwards progress slowed. By 8am we were at 5400m but it was obvious that we were not going to make it to the summit and back safely due to the deep powder snow, time consuming climbing, and increasing avalanche risk. At 9am we started to descend and by 3pm a fierce storm was underway – thankfully we were well on our way back to basecamp by this time.
It snowed again at basecamp for the next 3 days and we decided to change our focus to the Kishtwar Eiger. The Kishtwar Eiger is given different heights on the three different maps we had: 5600m, 5800m and 6000m. Under typical October conditions the South Face of the Kishtwar Eiger would probably have some great rock climbing, but this season clearly wasn’t typical. We picked a line linking southeast facing gullies on the right-hand side of the face where we hoped the sunny aspect would make for more consolidated snow and ice.
On the 12th of October we started up the south face. We soloed up an easy 1000m snow gully with a very short steep section at the top, leading to a pleasant and safe tent site at 5000m. On the 13th we started in the dark, soloing up a wide snow couloir before simul-climbing mixed ground into the steeper main couloir. The climbing was fun with much better snow conditions than on Flat Top and we made good progress, simul-climbing at first before switching to pitching. As Tim topped out from leading a steep iced up corner (WI4) a relatively harmless but scary spindrift avalanche washed down the gully and over us. It’d snowed 2cm the previous evening and it wasn’t unexpected that it would release in the sun, but it was an ominous reminder of how much spindrift could funnel down the route if it started to snow again. 70m higher we came to a bifurcation and choose to go right. After 60m of thin poorly protected ice I pulled through a small bulge hoping to see an easy way onto the summit snow slopes. We could see that the easy ground started only one pitch above us but unfortunately the ice got too thin to climb. After trying three different ways we realised we had dead-ended and abseiled back to the bifurcation. Tim led a pitch left and then we realised that the weather was turning nasty again! We had reached 5700m and think we had climbed the main difficulties of the route but estimate we still had 300m of climbing to make the summit. A gully is never a good place to be once it starts snowing, especially if the summit snowfield drains into it, so we reluctantly decided to start retreating. We were glad we’d turned around when we did as the snowfall increased and we started to be hit by bigger and bigger spindrift avalanches. After 13 abseils and some down climbing we reached the tent at 8pm thoroughly spent, descending the rest of the way the next day.