In a five-day round trip from base camp, Malcolm Bass and Guy Buckingham, supported by grants from the Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund, Austrian Alpine Club, BMC and MEF, made the first ascent of the difficult north-west ridge of Gangstang in the Indian Himalaya.
Gangstang, a beautiful pyramid of 6,162m in the state of Himachal Pradesh, lies north of the Chandra River in Lahaul.
It was reportedly first climbed by Italians in 1945. Approaching from the east via the Gangstang Glacier, they gained the crest of the south-west ridge and followed it to the summit, though the exact line of their route is not clear.
The second ascent of the peak, also via the southwest ridge, took place in 1973 and was achieved by an Indian team from West Bengal. Since then the mountain has been climbed sporadically, mostly by Indian teams following the south-west ridge, gained from the east, though there have been variations to the approach.
However, in 2001 a Japanese team, comprised of veteran mountaineers, Sherpas and high altitude porters, broke new ground by approaching the peak via the glacier below the north face, and from there making the first ascent of the snowy east ridge.
In 2007, Martin Moran led an expedition that made the first ascent of what he called Thirot Shivling (5,324m), but which was later renamed Neelkantha, a rocky fortress at the end of the northwest ridge of Gangstang.
Moran and other team members then climbed a partial new route on the main peak by ascending a 600m curving snow couloir on the west face to reach the crest of the southwest ridge at around 5,600m. From here they continued to the summit, joining the point where the normal route comes in from the east at around 5,800m.
Moran's photos and enthusiasm for the north-west ridge and ca. 900m north face, both unclimbed, inspired Bass and Buckingham to make a visit.
Team Bass & Buckingham
The team reached base camp and then acclimatised by making what they feel was a tiny impression on the wealth of superb granite bouldering in the surrounding area, and then an ascent of Neelkantha.
They note that in a move to modernity the Indian Mountaineering Foundation now hires bouldering mats to visiting expeditions at a very reasonable rate.
Bass and Buckingham had originally hoped to try the impressive north face, but the stability of a serac barrier on the wall, uncertainty from their viewpoint as to the exact location of the crest of the upper east ridge, and a suspicion that the upper slopes were formed of undercut slab, convinced them that the ridge was the best option.
It was a dry winter everywhere in the Himalaya, and this affected the route choices of many expeditions once on the ground. However, the two climbers were blessed with a Liaison Officer who was flexible to their approach, and, as it was to transpire, equally blessed with a reasonable weather window.
Their first night was spent at 5,000m below the north face and the next day they climbed a couloir onto the northwest ridge.
From here it was rock and mixed climbing most of the way to the summit.
The climbing, on blocky granite, was excellent, and the rock solid enough to withstand the normal hooking and torquing in the dry conditions. Objective danger was nil.
Two camps were made on the ridge, and on the third day, on one of many fine sections, Buckingham found himself torquing up a short wall to gain a slab, only to peer through a hole straight down the immensity of the west face, undercutting the crest by a good five metres.
The weather deteriorated by the time they had reached 6,000m, with snowfall and a strengthening wind blowing directly up the west face. From here to the top it was bullet-proof grey water ice: the climbing swiftly became arduous, monotonous, and calf-screaming.
Little time was spent on the cold and tiny summit before locating the south-west ridge and beginning the descent. The two camped for the last time 100m down the ridge, and then the next morning, as the snow stopped and the weather began to improve, they followed Martin Moran's 2007 ascent line – down climbing and making four abseils – to the bottom.
A six-hour trudge along glacier moraine brought them safely back to base camp.
The 1,500m ascent was graded ED1, Scottish VI mixed, with pure rock climbing to British 5a.