Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Expedition to Mt. Uja Tirche (6202 m)

Mt. Uja Tirche (6202m, 20348ft), Garhwal Himalayas, India

It was the year 2005, and my first selection in the national mountaineering team of IMF (Indian Mountaineering Foundation), for an expedition to Mt. Uja Tirche in Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand (then Uttaranchal).

Snow plumes crowning Mt. Uja Tirche (picture courtesy Debabrata Mukherjee)

Mt. Uja Tirche was first summited in 1937It is a less frequented peak, closer to Tibet border, towards the north of Uttarakhand. Its location in an unfrequented region, which required additional permissions from defence authorities, and shortage of drinking water en route never made it a popular climb. But among the fraternity its magnificence and interesting climb is discussed with fervour.

Our team had nine members from various states of India. Expedition leader Debabrata Mukherjee (West Bengal), HC Mohan Lal (Punjab), Nandadulal Das (Assam), Ashish Singh (Uttarakhand), Arjun M Petkar (Maharashtra), Chandrashekhar Shirsath (Maharashtra), Biplob Mondal (West Bengal), Prosenjit Samanta (West Bengal) and myself from Rajasthan. We reported as scheduled at IMF Delhi on 26th Aug. 2005 and completed the joining formalities. Our beds were allotted in the IMF dormitory where the team members got introduced to each other. We were also assigned our roles and I was given the responsibility of Assistant Store Incharge. Next four days went by in expedition planning and chores like selecting our climbing equipment from the IMF store, sourcing & packing dry ration, following daily fitness regime, climbing practice, etc.

Our flag-off was done by Mr. NN Vohra (IAS, batch 1959) who was President, IMF at the time. He was accompanied by Col. NK Bhimwal, VSM (then Director, IMF).

Flag-off ceremony at IMF (picture courtesy Debabrata Mukherjee)

There was not much information available regarding this peak. Debu da made a route map going through limited information he found in IMF library. It was not-to-scale but it gave us un understanding of how to approach our peak.

Route map to Mt. Uja Tirche

Getting ready to depart from IMF Delhi

On 31st Aug. we loaded our stuff on a van and left from IMF (Delhi) around noon, stayed overnight at Rishikesh, and reached Joshimath on 1st Sept. afternoon. We settled in a small hotel close to the main market, and had a walk around in the evening.

View of Joshimath town

The full next day (2nd Sept.) went in arranging the permits, vegetables & other food items, confirming porters, etc. Our team was divided into smaller teams for these tasks. Till late night we were completing our final packing & rechecking it, as next morning we were to cover some 70km distance by road to our trek start point called 8km bridge, which is ahead of Malari village. Malari village is around 60km from Joshimath and takes around two hours by road. We would start the trek the same day to our first camp if things be favourable.

We did start on time on 3rd Sept., but as soon as we travelled a little ahead of Joshimath we faced a traffic jam. It was due to a huge landslide which had disconnected the road completely and only a walking trail was available across the rubble. The unloading of our entire luggage, shifting it to the other side of the landslide and hiring another vehicle took away two more hours from the day.

Landslide which completely disconnected the road to Malari

Finally we reached the starting point of our trek, i.e. 8km bridge. As we were delayed from our schedule and all the porters were also not able to reach the meeting point on time, we decided to spend the night at the roadside itself.

Roadside camping at 8km bridge

Malari village

It would be a miss to not mention about the beautiful village Malari. It is a historical village and one of the last few villages towards the India-Tibet border. It is very cold during winters and the residents of Malari move to lower regions during Oct-March. The road to Niti village (the last Indian village near India-Tibet border) is 22km from Malari.

By 08-0830hrs on 4th Sept. our first party had started on the trail, and the remaining team members started soon after distributing & handing over the final load to the porter team. A while after crossing the bridge towards the mountain and traversing some distance along the Dhauliganga river, the start of the climb welcomed us with a steep gradient of almost 60 degrees, with loose rocks & the sun also started shining brightly. I didn’t expect it to be so steep on the first day itself but there was no other way.

Steep ascent to start (L-R Debabrata Mukherjee, Biplob Mondal, Mohan Lal)

With our fully loaded rucksacks we continued to tackle that steep climb and we cleared the first ridge in around an hour. The trek became easier thereafter and the closer views during steep climb changed to panoramic views of mountain ranges and greenery. By afternoon we reached to our first TC (trekking camp) at Chilkuanch (12321ft).

Trekking camp-1 (12321 ft)

On 5th Sept. we had to reach the snout of Siruanch glacier, which would be our base camp. It was decided by our expedition leader basis the information he could gather regarding the previous expedition held for Mt. Uja Tirche in 1974. That team had mentioned that they set up their base camp at the snout of the glacier, and accordingly we planned the same. We continued on our track, crossing the Lampak ground, but couldn’t trace the snout in time and hence set up TC2 at 12928ft altitude.

Trekking camp-2 (12928 ft)

On 6th Sept. we moved further in search of the snout and located it closer to the end of the valley which had towering south wall of Mt. Trisuli (7074m) closing the valley ahead. We set up our camp (14662 ft) and performed the pooja, which is a regular ritual of praying to the almighty for safety of team members and success of the expedition. After lunch we tried to understand the map and locate the route to our peak. But the information we had wasn’t matching with the terrain we were actually at. Debu da took Mohanlal ji with him and did a small recce around but nothing much came out of it. We all were flummoxed with this turn of events and thinking hard to get out of this situation.

Base camp establishment pooja at 14662 ft, though this location was about to turn a surprise

7th Sept. morning Debu da went again with Mohanlal ji for a longer recce in further detail around the area. He came back around lunch with some interesting news! We had come around 1-1.5 km ahead of the location where we should have set up our base camp. Reason we missed it was that the glacier had shrunk and the snout visible to the previous team, which noticed it 30 years ago, had now receded to where we were camping that time. For this reason Debu da renamed our camp as ‘Glacier Exploration Camp’! It was disappointing. We repacked all equipment, food, etc, which was opened to set up the base camp. Our temporary porters were also not there as they had left the previous day after we set up the current camp. They were to come back after a week to take the load back to road head.

On 8th Sept. we went back on our trail and found a place, at 14180 ft, which seemed favourable to set up the base camp. The location was not comfortable. It was all above scattered large & small boulders in place of a dried up glacier, and a small stream flowing on one side which showed up partially in the moraine. This location was not far away from our TC2. we wished we had noticed these issues early and saved three days, but then how will mountaineering become so interesting if such incidents don’t happen!

Base camp at 14180 ft

Next day (9th Sept.) Debu da, Mohanlal ji, Ashish & Prosenjit started off to find a route to the camp-1. They went up through very steep side and slowly disappeared behind the cliff. It took them7-8 hrs and they came back by late afternoon. Their route was blocked by a vertical rocky buttress which was misunderstood to be the way to camp-1. Ashish & Prosenjit waited under that and Debu da and Mohanlal ji climbed that rock wall (which included chimney climbing) with much difficulty. After reaching its top they realised that it wasn’t the way to camp-1, and they had to traverse to the right. After this switch they found the correct route, and also found an old rock piton probably fixed 20-30 years ago by the previous team. After climbing up for around half an hour more they found the camp-1 site and left their load there. By the time they came back the weather started to turn unfavourable, which otherwise was fully clear all these days. It became cloudy and started to drizzle as well.

It was the turn of other members next day (10th Sept.) to gain height till Camp-1 and do the load ferry. I was part of this second team and we moved up the same route our first team had been through. There were many rock climbing faces en route, and we also noticed the old rock piton fixed by previous team & still intact (though a bit rusted). It was a hint that we were on the right track, at least for camp-1. The climb was moderate with the load on our backs, and difficult on some patches where we fixed rope for safety. The weather was not improving and casting suspicion in our minds. It was expected to be further unfavourable. We were having good weather since we started our expedition, and generally there is a pattern of weather changes in mountains, i.e. after a few days of good weather it changes to a few days of unfavourable weather. Having questions in our minds we kept climbing and soon we reached the Camp-1 site. We kept our load there and by late afternoon we reached back at our base camp.

Keeping the load near camp-1 site (16684ft), and preparing to return

By evening the weather turned worse. It was raining and complete white out. It kept us confined at our base camp for next three days (11-12-13th Sept.). We were waiting eagerly for some improvement, and fighting the gloom in our minds. We had already wasted a few days in locating the correct base camp site, and now more were gone waiting for the weather to improve. Our ration was also depleting. The food was not planned for so many extra days. In our initial plan we had kept only one day extra for summit attempt. All sorts of thoughts were coming to our minds, whether to abandon the expedition or wait more, is it worth risking our lives in such weather? We were also getting infrequent and unfavourable news, through the radio Debu da had, that it was unprecedented in this season for the weather to continue for so long like this. We were equally worried for other expeditions facing such weather. The team members’ balance was slowly reclining towards cancelling the expedition and move back!

On the way to occupy camp-1

On 13th Sept. we made a decision. Six of us, along with three HAPs, agreed to give it a try till whatever height can be reached, before finally giving in. It was decided that third day we all will come back to base camp whether summit attempt becomes successful or not.

Debu da, Mohanlal Ji, Ashish, Prosenjit, Biplob and myself formed the team and set off on 14th Sept. to establish camp-1. Nandadulal, Chandrashekhar & Arjun decided to stay at base camp. The weather was still not showing any signs of improvement. It was all cloudy and the rain, though not so much, didn’t stop. Somehow we reached camp-1 (16684 ft) and before we could erect our tents it started to snow. We set up our tents during the snow fall and within a couple of hours our tents and surroundings were covered in snow!

Snowfall started as soon as we reached camp-1 site

Weather further deteriorated by the time we set up camp-1

15th Sept. went by fully confined at camp-1 as the snowfall continued all day, having only a few intermittent breaks for few minutes. The weather turned much worse, the news from other regions was also similar. The communication tools were not so advanced at that time, and our walkie-talkie was also of not much use. Debu da had a small radio through which we were receiving some news and weather updates.

One of my climbing friends Mr. Inder Kumar from Punjab police was in another IMF expedition to Mt. Chomo Yummo (Indian Himalayas, North Sikkim), led by Dr. P.M. Das (DG Punjab Police & IMF Vice President at the time), during the same period. One interesting fact is that Dr. P.M. Das had actually suggested this peak to our expedition leader Debu da. Another interesting fact is that Mohan Lal ji wanted to be with his Punjab Police team but due to certain turn of events he landed in our team. It was in true sense a blessing in disguise for him, and I wish the event that made it a blessing should never have happened. I have mentioned the reason at the end of this article.

Coming back to our tensed tent meeting that day, we decided to try once for the summit attempt if we get a slight improvement in the weather, else we wind up & go back to base camp. The plan was made and with all the ambiguities we tried to sleep in our tents.

On our summit attempt day (16th Sept.) we woke up at 0600hrs and left camp-1 at 0640hrs. The weather hadn’t improved but it was stable for some time giving us some much needed hope. The plan was to establish camp-2 (17943 ft), leave some food there, and continue towards summit. Prosenjit changed his mind at the last moment and stayed at camp-1. Five of us, with three HAPs, reached camp-2 is two hours. After reaching near camp-2 Biplob started feeling unwell. He stretched a bit but then decided to not continue further as he was getting slow. The weather was not showing any better signs. All three of our high altitude porters refused to move ahead of camp-2 so it was agreed that they will stay at camp-2 till we come back, and then descend to camp-1 together.

Move towards camp-2

Remaining four of us took a call and decided to move ahead. We got roped up for safety and continued under the south-west ridge, up along the glacier. It was a different route than the ones taken by any of the previous teams to this peak. It was difficult to climb through fresh snow fallen over the loose rocks, and consuming our energy much faster than normal. Trusting Debu da’s experience we continued through the adverse weather climbing gradually up the south face. and reached a point where the ridge was ending. We expected it to connect to another ridge leading to the summit but it was actually a steep fall ahead. We turned towards left and caught on the north ridge. The time was passing by and it was almost 6-7 hours that we were continuously climbing. We took a longer break and ate a bit. Further kept moving ahead with extreme caution as the snowfall was still going on with minor intermittent breaks.

Much needed break

Around 1515-1530hrs we saw a faint glimpse of a huge rocky cone at the end of the ridge we were following, and it was going up in the clouds. It rushed new energy in our bodies as it was the final part of the summit, but very steep. We continued on the ridge leading towards the left of this cone, and from their we were to take a right and move straight up. We took a small break and continued ahead.

The final summit cone (sense of nearness is just a deception)

Final push towards summit (picture courtesy Ashish Singh)

We all were exhausted, and moving slowly up trying to match with each other's pace. Taking one step at a time on the fresh snow, the much awaited moment came at 1635hrs on 16-Sept-2005 (India time) and there we were at the the summit of Mt. Uja Tirche (6202m, 20348 ft). It was such a feeling of achievement and exhilaration but the circumstances on the mountains demand composure. We did our summit pooja and clicked the pictures, which would be the most important element to confirm our summit.

At the summit, L-R Ashish Singh, Gajpal Singh Rathore, Debabrata Mukherjee

At the summit, L-R Mohan Lal, Ashish Singh, Debabrata Mukherjee (picture courtesy Debabrata Mukherjee)

We stayed at the summit for only 15-20min. We were already running short of time and had to reach back as soon as possible. The unentangling of the rope and clearing it back was also seeming like a huge task at that moment. The slope was steep and we didn’t want to take any chances. We connected our rope and started moving down, sometimes slipping over fresh snow and the hidden rocky terrain underneath. I could feel my mental and physical exhaustion and this is one of the typical things I like about mountaineering. It gives one a chance to strengthen holistically by actually pushing one to the limits. Otherwise mostly we just use this term ‘pushing to the limits’ as a metaphor only.

Descending started at 16:55hrs under the same weather (picture courtesy Ashish Singh)

Braving the weather & exhaustion we reached camp-2 at around 2030:2045hrs and were surprised that no one was at the camp. We left the camp items as it is, which were collected by our HAP team the next day. It took us one more hour and at 2145hrs we were back at camp-1. The team at camp-1 was relieved to see our headlights on the way to camp-1 as they were worried that we may have met some accident. It seems they were so sure of us not returning, at least to camp-1, that no food was prepared for us! We gobbled whatever was available, made a quick plan to move down to base camp next day, and went to our tents to take rest.

Returning from camp-1 to base camp (picture courtesy Debabrata Mukherjee)

On 17th Sept. we wound up camp-2 and got ready to move down. There were some garbage collected which was being contemplated to be buried or burnt there. Most team members were of the opinion to bury or burn it there, but I along with Debu da volunteered to take it to basecamp. From base camp the garbage collected over days was already planned to be part of the return load. It took us 2-3 hrs to reach base camp in the full cloudy weather where the visibility was also less. The entire team was happy and excited to see us. We also got to know that had we not turned up that day, the team at the base camp had decided to return to Joshimath the next day, and call for our rescue. They thought we have met an accident due to the adverse weather.

Finally in direct sunlight, back at TC-1

On 18th Sept. we took off back to our TC1 while the weather was still not favourable at the start. It was when we neared our TC1 site that we saw some improvement in weather, after 10 days of continuous adverse weather. And it was late afternoon that day that we experienced the clear sunlight enriching our mind and bodies. Following day (19th Sept.)was relaxed for us and we started a bit late in the morning. The final trek felt like a breeze with our recharged selves and we were at the road head (8km bridge) by late afternoon. All the equipment and other items were loaded quickly over the waiting vehicle, and we reached Joshimath by 1730hrs. The weather was so clear on this day as if nothing had happened!

On 20th Sept. Debu da cleared the paper work, taking the deposit amount from Forest dept., payment to travel agents, porters, etc. We also visited Badrinath temple on this day and took blessings of lord Vishnu. It is approx. 2hrs drive (45km) from Joshimath.

Badrinath town, Badrinath temple visible at the centre of the pic

The return to Delhi was covered in a single day and by evening of 21st Sept. we were at IMF. Next couple of days went by in completing the return formalities, printing of photos (the times when we used camera rolls), flag-in ceremony, etc. During this time Debu da also managed to get our official track suits with ‘India Mountaineering’ printed at the back. These were expected at the start of our expedition but due to some delays we got these at the end. 24th Sept. was our departure from IMF, marking an end to this roller coaster ride.

Back at IMF Delhi

I left to my home at Jaipur, happy for the summit and weaving dreams of more expeditions.

A few days later we received a very sad news. Because of the unprecedented adverse weather in that season, the climbing team on Mt. Chomo Yummo met with an accident on 24th Sept. and five lives were lost. It included Dr. PM Das, Ms. Nari Dhami and my friend Mr. Inder Kumar (all from Punjab Police) and two sherpas Mr. Dawa Sherpa & Mr. Dawa Wangchuk. Their rescue operation also took time due to the the adverse weather. It was a big loss for me to have lost Inder Kumar ji, whom I remember fondly to this day. I met him first during my ‘Alpine Climbing Camp’ at Manali, where he was also my tent partner. We formed a great bond instantly. He used to joke that he will take me to Punjab and make me a ‘Constable’ in Punjab Police. Best wishes to him & his near and dear ones always.

Only memories left, with Inder Kumar ji, bivouac practice during Alpine Climbing Camp, Manali 2004

* © This article & all the pictures (
except the ones with mentioned source) in this article are copyright by the author.